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Iraq: al-Maliki’s rivals jockey to replace him

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FILE – This Dec. 3, 2011 file photo shows Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq. The prospect of the U.S. military returning to the fight in Iraq has turned congressional hawks into doves. Lawmakers who eagerly voted to authorize military force 12 years ago to oust Saddam Hussein and destroy weapons of mass destruction that were never found now harbor doubts that air strikes will turn back insurgents threatening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and Baghdad. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

FILE – This Dec. 3, 2011 file photo shows Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq. The prospect of the U.S. military returning to the fight in Iraq has turned congressional hawks into doves. Lawmakers who eagerly voted to authorize military force 12 years ago to oust Saddam Hussein and destroy weapons of mass destruction that were never found now harbor doubts that air strikes will turn back insurgents threatening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and Baghdad. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

FILE – In this Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 file photo, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets with Iran’s former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Tehran, Iran. Iraqi security forces battled insurgents targeting the country’s main oil refinery and claimed to regain partial control of a city near the Syrian border Wednesday, trying to blunt a weeklong offensive by militants who diplomats fear may have abducted some 100 foreign workers. Al-Maliki, meanwhile, struck an optimistic tone after soldiers abandoned their posts in the wake of the initial offensive, promising his nation would teach the attackers a “lesson.” “We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back,” al-Maliki said. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

An al-Qaida-inspired militant stand guard at a checkpoint captured from the Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The fighting at Beiji comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.(AP Photo)(AP Photo)

An al-Qaida inspired militant stands with a captured Iraqi Army Hmvee at a checkpoint outside Beiji refinery, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The fighting at Beiji comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.(AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captirted Iraqi Army Himvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. The fighting at Beiji comes as Iraq has asked the U.S. for airstrikes targeting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While U.S. President Barack Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching airstrikes, such action is not imminent in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground, officials said.(AP Photo)

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BAGHDAD (AP) — With the country in turmoil, rivals of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister are mounting a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.

On Thursday, their effort received a massive boost from President Barack Obama.

The U.S. leader stopped short of calling for Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders.” But, his carefully worded comments did all but that.

“Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis,” Obama declared at the White House.

“We’ve said publicly, that whether he (al-Maliki) is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that there has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shiite and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” the president said.

An “inclusive agenda” has not been high on the priorities of al-Maliki, whose credibility as an able leader suffered a serious setback when Sunni militants of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant launched a lightning offensive last week that swallowed up a large chunk of northern Iraq, together with the nation’s second city, Mosul.

Al-Maliki, who rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, quickly became known for a tough hand, working in alliance with American forces in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased.

Since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011, however, it has swelled again, stoked in part by al-Maliki himself.

The Iraqi leader’s moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back.

At the same time, many Iraqis complain of government corruption, the failure to rebuild the economy and too close ties with mostly Shiite Iran, a non-Arab nation

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