WASHINGTON – The United States is preparing to send new aid to Iraq to help slow a violent insurgent march that is threatening to take over the nation’s north, officials said Wednesday. But the Obama administration offered only tepid support for Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister, and U.S. lawmakers openly questioned whether he should remain in power.
With no obvious replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and no apparent intent on his part to step down – Washington is largely resigned to continue working with his Shiite-led government that has targeted Sunni political opponents and, in turn, has inflamed sectarian tensions across Iraq.
“He’s obviously not been a good prime minister,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al-Qaida efforts.”
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., noted only lukewarm support for al-Maliki, both in Iraq and among U.S. officials. “I don’t know whether or not he will actually be the prime minister again,” Menendez said. “I guess by many accounts, he may very well ultimately put (together) the coalition necessary to do that.”
Insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is inspired by al-Qaida, overran the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit on Wednesday, a day after seizing Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city. The insurgent network has controlled the western city of Fallujah since the start of this year and is fighting to take over Beiji, a key northern oil refinery town.
The rampage has raised new doubts about al-Maliki’s ability to protect Iraq in areas that were mostly calm when U.S. troops withdrew from the country less than three years ago. Since then, violence has roared back to Iraq, returning to levels comparable to the darkest days of sectarian fighting nearly a decade ago when the country teetered on the brink of civil war.
Al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pleaded with the Obama administration for more than a year for additional help to combat the growing insurgency, which has been fueled by the unrelenting civil war in neighboring Syria.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it’s expected that the U.S. will give Iraq new assistance to combat insurgents but declined to describe it.
“The situation is certainly very grave on the ground,” Psaki said Wednesday.