BAGHDAD -- Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in an unusual midnight address likened some of his political opponents to terrorists and announced that he would take the country’s president to court over alleged constitutional violations.
His announcement came as a constitutional deadline expired for the Iraqi parliament to name a prime minister after April’s inconclusive elections, revealing Maliki’s determination to hold on to his position despite calls for his resignation from many Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials.
Maliki charged that Iraq President Fouad Massoum failed to uphold the constitution by not naming a prime minister from the political bloc with the most seats in parliament – Maliki’s State of Law Coalition.
Maliki said he would press his case against Massoum in federal court.
He called on Iraqis to unite against the Islamic State – the Sunni extremist group that seized swaths of northern and western Iraq – as well as against “ISIS politicians” who would disrupt the government.
Meanwhile, Maliki also took steps to protect his government from any armed dissenters, ordering an elite militia to reinforce the central Baghdad complex known as the International Zone that houses key government buildings.
A western security expert based in Iraq said that Maliki deployed members of the Golden Dawn militia and the elite SWAT special forces units around the International Zone prior to giving the speech.
“He was clearly anticipating a negative, possible coup-like response,” said the expert, whose employer does not allow him to speak openly to the media.
Maliki’s late-night address followed a day of heavy fighting in northern Iraq in which Iraqi and Kurdish forces regained ground they had lost to the Islamic State.
With help from more American air strikes targeting Islamic State armored vehicles and artillery, the government forces retook the villages of Makhmur and Gwer.
“We are so proud,” said Serwan Abdullah Ismail, a Kurdish member of parliament, who added that he wrote a thank-you letter to President Barack Obama for approving the air strikes.
Back in Baghdad, lawmakers spent the day in parliament struggling to find someone other than Maliki who could lead the country as prime minister.
Maliki’s State of Law coalition is one of several Shiite political parties that belong to a broader bloc called the National Iraqi Alliance.
Members of the alliance have been holding meetings for several days to name a successor to Maliki, believing they could choose someone from their coalition.
Maliki instead wants Massoum, a Kurd, to choose a prime minister specifically from the State of Law bloc.
By tradition, Iraq names a Shiite Arab to be prime minister, a Kurd to be president and a Sunni Arab to be speaker of parliament. Kurdish and Sunni politicians generally respect the tradition, and won’t offer suggestions about who they think should lead the country.
“This is not our responsibility,” one Kurdish lawmaker said Sunday. “We don’t care about the name. It’s the alliance’s responsibility.”
Many Shiite lawmakers, as well as the country’s most revered Shiite cleric, have been urging Maliki to step down.
“It’s clear that every bloc rejected him,” said Yasir Saleh, a political adviser to a group of Shiite lawmakers within the National Iraqi Alliance.
Maliki “knows that. A new prime minister will absolutely be better. He’d have a new chance with people.”
Critics call Maliki a divisive figure who alienated the country’s Sunni minority. Sunni extremists have taken over large swaths of the country’s west and north while carrying out frequent bombings within Baghdad.
Maliki’s “staying in power will be the end of Iraq,” said Maysoon al Damluji, a Sunni lawmaker.
Maliki has countered by casting himself as a defender of the country in a troubled time. He was appointed prime minister in 2006 and worked with President George W. Bush to tamp down the bloody sectarian fighting that tore apart the country following the U.S. occupation.
In 2010, Maliki’s State of Law coalition came in second place in national elections, but Maliki held on to his position by challenging the results in Iraq’s supreme court. Since then, he has built the government around himself with special military units that report directly to him.
Thousands of people marched through Baghdad on Saturday to demonstrate their support for his third term, and his face is plastered throughout the city on banners linking him to the state’s armed forces.
U.S. officials have made their preference for a new prime minister clear to Iraqi lawmakers. Obama in his remarks since approving limited military intervention on Thursday has said Iraq should choose a new prime minister to unite the country.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, seemed to underline that point in a tweet after Maliki’s speech in which he reiterated U.S. support for President Massoum “as guarantor of the constitution and a (prime minister) nominee who can build a national consensus.”
The U.S. preference for a new leader is one reason Iraqi lawmakers say it’s time for Maliki to go. They believe the United States will provide more military assistance if parliament chooses a different prime minister.
“No doubt about that,” Saleh said. “This is good news. The bad news is (the U.S. intervention) is limited.”
So far, the strikes are popular among Iraqi lawmakers who say they wish the United State had intervened earlier to prevent the Islamic State’s swift drive through central and northern Iraq’s Sunni Arab provinces.
America “should have a major role in building a new Iraqi state. Otherwise you should leave because you are doing nothing,” said Razzaq al Haidari, a member of parliament from the Shiite Badr bloc.
His party is one that pushed for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq during the American occupation. Now, he said, “We call on the U.S., as the builder of democracy, to the defense of our country.”
Islamic State has displaced hundreds of thousands of Shiite Arabs, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis since it overran the city of Mosul in June.
Human Rights Watch estimated that the Islamic State advance into Kurdish territory sent more than 150,000 Yazidis – members of a Kurdish religious minority – fleeing from their villages. Witnesses from Mosul have reported seeing Yazidi women auctioned off by militants.
Some lawmakers vented that Shi’a and Sunni Muslims who don’t support Islamic State deserved American protection well before Obama’s decision to protect U.S. interests in the Kurdish city of Irbil.
“We feel sorry that America didn’t act from the very beginning. Why did they wait until the (Kurds) were hit? They should have acted sooner,” said Jamila Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul.
McClatchy foreign correspondent Mitchell Prothero and special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.