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Kerry Issues Warning to Iraqi Leader

Secretary of State John Kerry in Sydney, Australia, on Monday.
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
August 11, 2014

SYDNEY, Australia — Secretary of State John Kerry warned Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq on Monday not to interfere with the process of picking a new Iraqi leader, cautioning pointedly that a power grab would lead to a cutoff of international support.

“There should be no use of force,” Mr. Kerry said in remarks to reporters in Sydney, where he met with Australian officials, “no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq.”

“We believe that the government-formation process is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”

Mr. Kerry’s comments came amid heightened tensions in Baghdad and fears that Mr. Maliki might abuse his authority as commander in chief to extend his rule.

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In a parallel military development, American officials said that the Kurds, who have been struggling to defend themselves against Sunni militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, have begun to receive arms from outside sources.

In recent weeks, Kurdish officials have repeatedly asked the Obama administration for ammunition, machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles, vehicles and other weapons to battle the Sunni militants.

American officials said that the Pentagon was not supplying the arms, suggesting that the program was part of a covert effort that enlisted the support of other countries.

“They are getting some arming from various sources,” said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing sensitive diplomatic issues. The official declined to provide details on what weapons were being provided or who was providing them.

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The Iraqi prime minister, who is pressing for a third term, is locked in a test of wills with Iraq’s new president, Fouad Massoum, a Kurd.

Mr. Massoum’s powers are largely ceremonial, but he plays an important role in the formation of the Iraqi government and enjoys the support of Washington and several of Iraq’s embittered factions.

In a speech Sunday night, Mr. Maliki complained bitterly that Mr. Massoum had not named him as a candidate for another term as prime minister. Nerves in the capital have been frayed by reports in the Iraqi news media of troop movements that were seen as a sign Mr. Maliki might be digging in for a fight.

Though the Obama administration has said publicly it will not get involved in Iraq’s internal politics, it has been quietly supporting the effort to find an alternative to Mr. Maliki, a Shiite politician who originally came to power in 2006 with the United States’ blessing.

In recent years, Mr. Maliki has been criticized for what many call authoritarian tendencies and has been accused of fanning sectarian tensions.

Washington hopes that a new prime minister would be able to form a multisectarian government that would give Sunnis a bigger stake in the political system and make them less sympathetic to Sunni militants from ISIS.

The American consultations about an alternative have involved contacts with an array of politicians, as well as efforts to communicate with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shiite spiritual leader.

Mr. Kerry, who is in Sydney with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for security talks with Australian officials, said that the Iraqi people supported a peaceful transition of power and said that there were “three or so” Shiite candidates for prime minister, “none of whom are Mr. Maliki.”

He also strongly endorsed Mr. Massoum’s handling of the situation, saying that the United States was “absolutely squarely” behind him.

Mr. Kerry said that the United States would support a new Iraqi government. But his strongest warning came when he cautioned that an effort by Mr. Maliki to short-circuit the Iraqi Constitution would lead to a cutoff of international backing.

“One thing all Iraqis need to know, that there will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitutional process that is in place and being worked on now,” Mr. Kerry said. “They need to finish that and give a new government an opportunity to be voted on, then move forward.”

Mr. Maliki, for his part, vowed on Monday to challenge Mr. Massoum’s refusal to reappoint him as prime minister.

“I will submit today an official complaint to the federal court against the president of the republic for committing a clear constitutional violation for the sake of political calculations,” Mr. Maliki said, according to news reports.

With political tensions mounting in the capital, police officials were quoted as saying that forces loyal to Mr. Maliki had taken up strategic positions, apparently to forestall any challenge on the streets. Police officers, some backed by armored vehicles, were said to have put up roadblocks at major intersections and to have closed some roads altogether.

The senior State Department official said that Mr. Maliki appeared to be mounting a “last desperate effort to try to force some kind of a deal” as his chances for retaining his prime minister post have diminished.

The State Department official said it appeared that Shiites were now coalescing around a main alternative Shiite candidate to Mr. Maliki, though he added there might be a “constitutional hiccup” because Iraqi politicians may narrowly miss the deadline to make their choice.

The official said that the United States had not confirmed reports of significant troop movements in Baghdad and believed that Mr. Maliki’s hopes to retain his post would be frustrated.

“He ain’t going to be prime minister,” the State Department official said of Mr. Maliki,

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.

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(via NY Times)