Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces a revolt within his party by factions that want him out as Iraqi leader, according to officials in his office and the political party he leads.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, al-Maliki’s predecessor, leads the challenge and already has approached leaders of the country’s two main Kurdish parties, parliament’s two Sunni Arab blocs and lawmakers loyal to powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Jaafari’s campaign, the officials said, was based on his concerns that al-Maliki’s policies had led Iraq into turmoil because the prime minister was doing too little to promote national reconciliation.
The former prime minister also has approached Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, proposing a “national salvation” government to replace the al-Maliki coalition. The Iranian-born al-Sistani refused to endorse the proposal, the officials said.
“Al-Jaafari is proposing a national and nonsectarian political plan to save the nation,” said Faleh al-Fayadh, a Dawa party lawmaker familiar with the former prime minister’s contacts.
Other officials, however, said al-Jaafari had only an outside chance of replacing or ousting al-Maliki. But they said the challenge could undermine al-Maliki and further entangle efforts at meeting important legislative benchmarks sought by Washington. They spoke of the sensitive political wrangling only on condition of anonymity.
The officials would not give details of the rift between al-Maliki and al-Jaafari, saying only that it began two months ago when a Dawa party congress voted to replace al-Jaafari with al-Maliki as its leader.
Al-Jaafari and other senior Dawa members are questioning the legality of that vote and the former prime minister has since boycotted all official party functions, said al-Fayadh.
The usually secretive Dawa, which is made up of two factions, has 25 of parliament’s 275 seats but draws its strength from being a key faction of a large Shiite alliance.
Ali al-Dabbagh, the government’s spokesman, declined to comment on the rift between al-Maliki and al-Jaafari, arguing that it was a matter for the Dawa to deal with.
“There should be no objections for a figure like al-Jaafari to try and put together a new political bloc provided that this will be of service to the political process,” he said.
Al-Maliki, a tough-talking Islamist, has so far failed to make significant progress on some of Iraq’s major problems 14 months after his “national unity” government took office. Security remains tenuous in much of the country, services are near collapse and soaring crime and unemployment continue to take their toll.
Al-Jaafari’s own record in office was not any better, but al-Jaafari was widely perceived as an open-minded Islamist who is at total ease dealing with his American backers.
To the Sunni Arabs he is courting now, the officials said, al-Jaafari was proposing a change in Iraq’s sectarian, power-sharing formula. He wants the president’s job, now held by Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to be given to a Sunni Arab to achieve a better balance between Iraq’s ethnic and religious factions and to improve ties with Arab nations.
To win the support of the Kurds, al-Jaafari is pledging the implementation of a clause in the constitution that provides for a referendum before the end of 2007 on the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq that the Kurds want to annex.
To compensate them for the loss of the presidency, al-Jaafari is proposing that they fill the post of parliament speaker, now occupied by a Sunni Arab.
Al-Jaafari’s bid to topple al-Maliki runs counter to ongoing negotiations to form what is being billed an “alliance of the moderates” that would include the country’s four largest Shiite and Kurdish parties and independent Shiites. It excludes hardline Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
It also comes at a time when al-Maliki is facing a threat by the largest Sunni Arab bloc to pull its ministers from his coalition unless he meets a long list of demands, which include overtures to minority Sunni Arabs, political inclusion and commitment to human rights.
Al-Maliki also has to contend with mounting pressure from Washington to meet a host of political benchmarks that should place Iraq’s rival factions on the road to reconciliation.