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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is rejecting calls for an interim “national salvation government” that would seek to represent all Iraqi communities, claiming that such a government, under which he would step down, would be “a coup against the constitution”.
Mr Maliki is opposed by the Sunni, Kurds, several Shia parties, the US and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader. To have a chance of keeping his job he would need the full support of Iran, which does not want him to be replaced by a pro-American prime minister.
Speaking today, Mr Maliki said: “We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts.”
Ghassan al-Attiyah, a political scientist and activist, said: “By staying on Maliki is playing into the hands of Sunni extremists. He is taking Iraq to hell.”
By not standing down, he increases the chance of the Kurds seceding from Iraq as they have threatened to do in the past. Mr Attiyah warned: “The Syrian civil war has gone on for three years but an Iraqi civil war could go on for five or six years.”
After the loss of most of Anbar province – that sprawls across western Iraq – at the weekend, the battle lines have steadied with the government forces still fighting for Iraq’s biggest refinery at Baiji.
State television showed pictures of reinforcements landing at the refinery to prove that the government still holds some parts of it, though Baiji town some distance away is held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
Mr Maliki is insisting that he stay on until parliament meets on 1 July to choose a new speaker, president and prime minister. But this could involve lengthy political manoeuvres without any real leadership from the Baghdad government. Mr Maliki is a hate figure to Iraq’s Sunni community, which has risen in revolt led by Isis, and he is almost equally unpopular among the Kurds.
The US is demanding an inclusive government that would bring on board Sunni leaders, but it is by no means clear who these would be.
The Sunni uprising is being led by Isis, which sees Iraq’s 60 per cent Shia majority as heretics and apostates who only deserve death.
Diplomats hope that Isis could be side-lined by other Sunni groups and by tribal leaders, but Isis’s ferocity and careful organisation makes it unlikely that it would be displaced easily.
In the long term, the Sunni community may find that by joining a revolt led by Isis it has stored up great dangers for itself in future. It has invited sectarian civil war, will be internationally isolated and cannot negotiate with Baghdad.
There are other questions, such as what will happen to over one million Sunni in Baghdad in enclaves surrounded by Shia. “I am frightened and I stay at home most of the time,” said a Sunni who did not want to give his name. “I never go out at night.”
Much depends on whether Isis has shot its bolt for the moment and is over-extended, having made more gains than it expected. It could attack Baghdad, a move unlikely to succeed because of the Shia majority. Alternatively, it could try to encircle the capital by cutting the main road linking Baghdad to Najaf and the south.
There were reports that Isis had taken the Sunni towns of Iskandariyah and Mahmoudiyah on this crucial road, but these were denied by local people who said the government had heavily reinforced its positions there.
Iran is being drawn further into the conflict supplying weapons and operational leadership.
A report by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran’s western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were said to have died on Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province.
US President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq, about 130 of whom have now been deployed.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.