Political intrigue in Baghdad as crisis escalates

Islamic State faces down Kurdish fighters and targets country’s dams

Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Makhmur. Photograph: Reuters

Kurdish peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in Makhmur. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly in the past 48 hours with a re-energised Islamic State – formerly Isis – storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s formidable military force, the Kurdish peshmerga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.

The loss of the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, to the insurgents was the most dramatic consequence of a days-long militant offensive in the north, which has sent tens of thousands of refugees, many from the Yazidi minority, fleeing.

In one captured town, Sinjar, the Islamic State executed dozens of Yazidi men, and kept the dead men’s wives for unmarried jihadi fighters. Panic on Thursday spread to the Kurdish capital of Irbil, long considered a safe haven, with civilians flooding the airport in a futile attempt to buy tickets to Baghdad.

As chaos tore through northern Iraq, political intrigue unfolded in Baghdad, with political leaders meeting late into Thursday night in the fortified Green Zone to choose a replacement for prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who has become an increasingly divisive figure. US officials have worked to engineer his ousting, believing he is incapable of establishing a national unity government acceptable to Iraq’s main minority groups, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

US officials have implied that more military aid would be provided if Iraq’s political class chose a new leader.

As Iraqi leaders, the country’s top religious authorities and top Iranian officials, who wield considerable power within Iraq, pushed for al-Maliki’s removal, he was refusing to step aside Thursday night. Even those within his own State of Law bloc were demanding that he leave.

‘No to Maliki’

“Everyone is saying no to Maliki now,” said a member of parliament from State of Law, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the discussions. “He’s rejected by all parties.”

If al-Maliki were to step down, he has reportedly demanded immunity from prosecution for himself, his family and his inner circle, and a massive security detail, paid for by the state. Given the number of enemies he has accrued over his time in power, and the well-documented instances of human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings under his watch – not to mention wide-scale corruption at the highest levels of his government – many believe he would be immediately under threat of arrest or assassination, were he to leave office without guarantees of immunity and protection.

“Maliki knows if he steps down, virtually he is a dead man,” said Ali Khedery, a former US official in Iraq, who over the years has advised five US ambassadors and several US generals, and was once close to al-Maliki.

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