Iraqi soldiers and helicopter gunships appeared to be holding on after three days of battle against Sunni insurgents Thursday for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own fate seemed increasingly in play with political leaders meeting in recent days behind closed doors and discussing his future, according to a Shiite lawmaker.
In Washington, President Barack Obama called on Iraqi leaders to govern with a more “inclusive agenda” to ensure the country does not descend into civil war.
The loss of the Beiji oil refinery, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government’s powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West. By late Thursday, the two sides held different parts of the refinery, which extends over several square kilometers of desert.
The tenacious fight for the refinery reflected the government’s desperation to hold on to a shrinking share of the country and stop the momentum of the Sunni extremists, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant allied with Sunni tribes and elements of Saddam Hussein’s old Baath Party. It also represented al-Maliki’s need for a military victory as leaders in both Baghdad and Washington questioned whether he should remain in office.
Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove al-Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is also a Shiite; and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after Saddam’s ouster.
Al-Mahdi belongs to a moderate Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has close links with Iran.
Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago. Another Shiite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister under al-Maliki’s tenure, according to the politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.