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. Northern Iraq has become a way station for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are seeding the Syrian war's violence in Baghdad and beyond.
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. Beyond the missiles, tanks, fighter jets and ammunition that the U.S. has already either given or plans to send to Iraq, Baghdad has sought American surveillance drones to root out insurgents.
"The situation is certainly very grave on the ground," Psaki said Wednesday. She said the U.S. is encouraged by Baghdad's recent promise for a national unity effort but "there's more that Prime Minister Maliki can do."
"We agree that all Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Maliki, can do more to address unresolved issues there, to better meet the needs of the Iraqi people," Psaki said.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, the White House said the U.S. will work with Congress to provide "flexibility and resources" to help Iraq respond to the insurgency and will increase as required assistance to the government to help build Iraq's capacity to "effectively and sustainably" stop the insurgency's efforts.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. is considering whether to conduct drone missions for Iraq but that no decision had been made. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and requested anonymity.
U.S. support for al-Maliki has waxed and waned since 2010, when he hung onto power though backroom deal-making after his State of Law party fell short of winning national elections. In 2011, days after the U.S. troop withdrawal, al-Maliki's government began a campaign of persecuting his longtime Sunni political opponents which, in turn, fueled Sunni anger in the Shiite-majority country.
Al-Maliki's party won the most seats in the most recent elections held in April, but it failed to capture a clear majority. That has spawned a rash of political bargaining in Baghdad as officials build a new power-sharing government.
If he remains in power, it's far from certain that al-Maliki will reverse his heavy-handed tactics after eight years in control, and Washington would most likely be happy with a change in leadership. However, a senior Iraqi official said al-Maliki has no intention of stepping down, despite demands from Sunni and Shiite rivals to give up his post.
Al-Maliki's opponents have for years been unable or unwilling to work together to unseat the prime minister and, in the meantime, there are few people in Iraq's current government who could replace him.
Within al-Maliki's party, Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite, has been mentioned as a potential successor who could win some Sunni support. However, he oversees Iraq's energy industry and has fought with Kurds who are exporting their autonomous region's oil to Turkey without giving Baghdad a share of the profits. It is almost impossible in Iraq's fractured political makeup to become prime minister without at least some Kurdish support.
Another contender is Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri, a Shiite whom the U.S. has accused of helping Iran send planeloads of aid to Syria by flying through Iraqi airspace. Al-Amiri is a former commander of the Badr Brigades, a Shiite militia linked to Iran.
That al-Amiri is being touted as a potential successor strikes at the heart of a main U.S. concern: that al-Maliki's heir apparent might be worse than al-Maliki himself. But that may be a chance that Iraq has to take if it wants a cohesive and inclusive government that is strong enough to repel the insurgency.
"Given Maliki's chain of defeats at the hand of ISIL, it's time for Iraqis and Americans to consider alternatives," said former Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey, who was in Baghdad for more than two years after the 2010 elections and as U.S. troops withdrew.
Asked if al-Maliki's departure would create a power vacuum that could foster even more political infighting and instability, Jeffrey said: "That might well be. But at some point in a quasi-democratic system, there has to be accountability."