Iraq’s new parliament convened on Tuesday days after Sunni militants declared an independent caliphate in the desert northwest of the country and while the Kurds in the north edged closer to independence.
The legislature met for the first time since it was elected in April when results suggested Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could easily win a third term. However, with the army seemingly incapable of fighting back an Islamist insurgency in Sunni areas of the country, pressure mounted on the Shia leader to stand down in favor of a less polarizing figure.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant shocked Iraq’s government last month when they took control of the country’s second city, Mosul. They now control swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.
Before the weekend, the group proclaimed its secretive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the “caliph”, the historic title of the successors of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled the entire Muslim world.
Less radical Sunni militias and tribes in Iraq have either joined the insurgency or refused to stand in its way, seeing the uprising as an opportunity to wrestle control from their Shia rulers in Baghdad. In Syria, however, other Sunni opposition groups battle both the Islamists and the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Defying international calls to reach out to Iraq’s minority sects, Maliki has led a crackdown of police officers and politicians he considers “traitors” while his party declared a boycott of the country’s biggest Sunni political bloc.
Iraq’s Kurds, who enjoy a high level of autonomy under its federalist constitution, have taken advantage of the unrest to conquer the ancient city of Kirkuk. While they have shied away from declaring independence outright, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani said, “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future.”
Unlike Iraq’s mostly Shia army, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been able to keep the Islamists at bay and secure their borders. The capture of Kirkuk and the surrounding oilfields makes the region all the more economically viable.
Turkey, previously wary that an independent Kurdistan would embolden its own Kurdish separatists, supports Kurdish secession, a spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling conservative party told the Financial Times. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said on Sunday, “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”
Turkey has bought oil from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq — over Maliki’s objections — while Israel would like to.