There are two wars being fought in Iraq right now: one to stop Sunni extremists from capturing the capital city and another one to convince the Shiite prime minister he needs to go.
The two fights are linked, and neither is going particularly well at the moment. While the Iraqi army made a show of force Friday by landing three helicopters full of commandos in the rebel-held city of Tikrit, there was little sign that the skirmish would halt an advance led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose fighters are now believed to be just an hour's drive from Baghdad, which has a majority Shiite population.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who is blamed for inflaming Sunni anger, and is facing increasing pressure from within his own Shiite community to step down – continues to cling to office, setting the stage for a political showdown when Iraq's new parliament convenes July 1 for the first time since an April election.
"With Maliki as prime minister, it's almost impossible for Kurds and Sunnis to join any political process," said Abdulmajeed Gly, a political analyst for Rudaw, an Erbil-based news website. He said Mr. al-Maliki had governed as a Shiite sectarian leader, alienating Sunnis while scaring Kurds by moving to limit their autonomy and recentralize power in Baghdad.
The scale of Mr. al-Maliki's isolation was made plain this week when Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric whose Mahdi Army battled U.S. forces in the early days of the American occupation of Iraq, ended a sabbatical from politics to call for a new and inclusive Iraqi government.
Long seen as a radical, Mr. al-Sadr also made a surprising effort to reach out to Sunni Muslims who have backed the Sunni extremist ISIL out of frustration with Mr. al-Maliki's policies.
"I call upon all Iraqis to stop fighting and terrorizing the civilians, the Iraqi government must fulfill the legitimate demands of the moderate Sunnis and stop excluding them because they have been marginalized," Mr. al-Sadr said in a televised address in which he also called up his followers to confront ISIL. He vowed to "shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and radicalism just as we did under the feet of the occupier" – increasing the likelihood of a prolonged bloody sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias.
Iraq's top Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, took a more nuanced line, calling for all political blocs to decide on the shape of a new government before the parliament convenes on Tuesday. Agreeing on a new president, prime minister and speaker of parliament would be a "prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present," a statement issued Friday by the cleric said.
Since 2003, the country's three most powerful jobs – president, prime minister and speaker of parliament – have been shared among the country's Kurdish, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab communities, though only after prolonged horse-trading. The formation of Mr. al-Maliki's current cabinet was the product of five months of negotiations.
That may seem, in retrospect, a relatively straightforward exercise compared to the negotiations ahead, since President Jalal Talabani and Mr. al-Maliki were both incumbents in 2010 with enough support to remain in office. This time, with the ailing Mr. Talabani due to retire after serving the maximum two terms in the largely ceremonial post, little is predictable, and MPs say they're worried parliament won't even convene on time next week.
"Nothing is clear right now. Usually everybody wants to attend the first session of parliament, but some parties clearly don't want this [July 1] meeting to happen," Kurdish MP Ala Talabani, the President's niece, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.If the parliament can oust Mr. al-Maliki, it would remove one major grievance that mainstream Sunnis have with Baghdad. Some Sunni tribal leaders – whose fighters five years ago helped oust al-Qaeda in Iraq from western Anbar province – have described their alliance with ISIL as temporary until Mr. al-Maliki goes. Mr. a-Maliki has thus far remained defiant, declaring that his party's "victory" in April elections – his State of Law coalition won a plurality, claiming 24 per cent of the vote and 92 of 328 parliamentary seats, after Mr. al-Sadr surprisingly withdrew his own party from contention on the eve of the vote – gives him a mandate to continue as prime minister. He has called the effort to convince him to step aside an attempted coup, and is believed to have the backing of neighbouring Iran as he clings to office. Tehran has a good relationship with Mr. al-Maliki, and worries Washington will try and influence the selection of any successor.
Iran this week sent military advisers and began drone flights over the country to support the Iraqi army as it moves to counter ISIL, a Sunni extremist group that has swiftly captured large swaths of western and northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. The U.S. has also sent military advisers – and armed American drones were seen flying over Baghdad on Friday – while trying to rally Iraqi political factions against Mr. al-Maliki.
Mr. al-Maliki's other ally is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who this week sent fighter jets to bomb ISIL positions in Iraq, a reflection of the threat the militants pose to both regimes, as well as the increasing irrelevancy of the Syria-Iraq border.
The dangerously sectarian nature of the fighting in Iraq was highlighted by a pair of reports released Friday. In one, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said an analysis of satellite images and photographs posted online suggested ISIL had executed between 160 and 190 captured Iraqi soldiers – the majority of whom were almost certainly Shiites – in Tikrit earlier this month. Reuters reported that Iraqi police sources admitted 69 Sunni prisoners had been executed in their jail cells on Monday in the southern city of Hilla.