By Justin Sink - 08/11/14 01:08 PM EDT
The White House on Monday took new diplomatic steps to force Iraq’s prime minister from power as it looked for ways to stop fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from gaining a deeper foothold in the country.
Vice President Biden placed supportive phone calls to Iraqi President Fuad Masum and the man he picked to become Iraq’s next head of state, Deputy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
In the calls, Biden conveyed President Obama’s congratulations and commitment to “a new and inclusive Iraqi government,” dealing a blow to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is clinging to power.
The calls left little doubt that Obama wants to push al-Maliki out the door and seek to unify Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds around a new leader as the U.S. seeks to stop gains by ISIS.
Al-Maliki has vowed to stay on. In an impromptu address over the weekend, he said he would go to federal court in a bid to stop Abadi’s nomination from going forward.
“What is happening today is a coup against the constitution, a deliberate violation of it by the president,” al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki also ordered loyal militiamen to begin patrols within the streets of Baghdad in a show of force.
Those moves were denounced by the State Department, which, in a clear rebuke to al-Maliki, issued a statement rejecting “any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process.”
“There should be no use of force,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Sydney, according to The New York Times. “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.”
The Obama administration is seeking answers in Iraq after authorizing airstrikes against ISIS fighters last week. Strikes against the Sunni Muslim group, which has vowed to launch attacks on the United States, appeared to have slowed their advance, with Kurdish forces fortifying their lines in northern Iraq.
The administration appears to have little flexibility to do more in Iraq. Democrats have mostly backed the limited airstrikes, but Obama has ruled out the use of combat troops and would face resistance from his own party with more aggressive steps.
The threat of ISIS has become crystal clear with the group’s advances against Kurdish forces last week.
Many Sunni Muslims in Iraq have seen ISIS as a better choice than backing al-Maliki, a Shiite seen as siding with his compatriots. That’s led to a renewed U.S. effort to shift horses in Iraq.
Shiites have also lost faith with al-Maliki, as the top Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has called for a new government.
Obama, who is on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard for two weeks, was briefed on the evolving situation Monday morning by national security adviser Susan Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes.
The White House is working to define the scope of its days-old military reengagement with Iraq.
On Monday, administration officials confirmed that the U.S. had helped arm Kurdish fighters working to repel ISIS fighters in the north.
“We're actively working with the [government of Iraq] to accelerate deliveries of badly needed arms to Kurdish forces in the north,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “The [government of Iraq] has made deliveries from its own stocks and we are working to do the same.”
The Pentagon also announced Monday that it had continued to conduct airstrikes on Sunday, successfully targeting rebels engaging with Kurdish forces near Erbil.
According to the Pentagon, multiple U.S. fighter jets struck and destroyed vehicles that were part of an ISIS convoy moving toward Kurdish forces outside the city.
But the White House has said it would not offer broader military support to Iraq unless there is progress made toward a unity government — an effort that could be complicated by al-Maliki’s reluctance to cede power.
“We’re going to be pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together,” Obama said Saturday.