BAGHDAD – The disastrous loss of a large swath of the north to Islamic militants is threatening to cost Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, his job as even longtime Shiite backers turn against him and seek an alternative.
During a meeting of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish party leaders, one young up-and-coming Shiite politician angrily told al-Maliki that his "obsession with power" and botched policies were to blame for this week's debacle.
"Now, I must leave. I have a meeting to go to," a seething Ammar al-Hakim, leader of a key Shiite party, declared before storming out of the session Wednesday night, according to a politician who attended and shared the exchange with The Associated Press in return for anonymity.
During his eight years in office, al-Maliki has touted himself as the only leader capable of safeguarding the Shiite domination won after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein — a Sunni — and defeating Sunni militants blamed for bombings and attacks against security forces and Shiite civilians.
Those claims have begun to sound increasingly hollow since December, when fighters of a breakaway faction of al-Qaida, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured the city of Fallujah in the mainly Sunni province of Anbar, as well as parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi. That put the militants just 30 miles west of Baghdad.
But it is the loss this week of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, along with vast territory in northern Iraq that could potentially herald the end of his tenure.
For years, the once-powerful Sunni Arab minority has complained that al-Maliki was marginalizing them and discriminating against their community, detaining thousands and turning a blind eye to abuses against them by his security forces.
His fellow Shiites complain that he restricts decision-making to himself and a small circle of confidants. The Kurds, who run a self-rule region in the north, have been at loggerheads with him over what they see as his attempts to meddle in their affairs and curb their freedom.
And the complaints are not restricted to Iraqi politicians.
Without mentioning al-Maliki by name, President Barack Obama criticized the Iraqi leader in an address Friday from the South Lawn of the White House.
Saying he is weighing a range of options for countering the Islamic insurgency in Iraq, Obama warned the U.S. will not take military action unless the Baghdad leadership moves to address deep-seated political trouble.
"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," Obama said.
The U.S. president did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq. The last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 after more than eight years of war.
Talk of an alternative to al-Maliki had been rife well before this week's losses, with fellow Shiites, Kurdish politicians and Sunnis insisting that it was time for a change at the top. But al-Maliki, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections in April, remained unfazed, even cocky.
In recent comments, he said he was confident he would be able to piece together a majority coalition in the 328-seat legislature so he can retain his job. On June 2, he claimed to have the support of 175 lawmakers and counselled those who want to join to agree first with his "program and principles."
But the loss of Mosul and Tikrit and the criticism from Obama could change all this, although al-Maliki has a reputation for being a gritty political fighter and a survivor.
On Friday, he traveled to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to personally supervise the defense of the city against growing attacks by Islamic State fighters. Samarra is home to a revered Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006 by Sunni militants, leading to an outbreak of Sunni-Shiite violence that lasted for nearly two years.
State television aired footage from the Samarra visit that appeared aimed at rebuilding al-Maliki's shattered image in the eyes of Shiites. Dour-faced, he appeared to confront the city's top army commander. In a separate sequence, he was shown praying at the Shiite shrine, an apparent reminder of his commitment to his faith and the protection of its followers.
Earlier this week, al-Maliki called for popular mobilization in the face of advances by the Islamic militants, a move that has received extensive coverage by the state media he closely controls.
A close Shiite ally with vast experience in running militias, Hadi al-Amiri, has set up the "Hussein Brigade" — named after one of Shiism's most beloved saints — to fight the militants. Calls by senior Shiite clerics for Iraqis to take up arms to fight the Islamic State militants and defend holy shrines could only bolster al-Maliki's standing as a Shiite leader.
Yet, prospects for al-Maliki's political survival remain dim.
During Wednesday night's meeting, which brought together Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite leaders, the prime minister came under scathing criticism. He was accused of marginalizing his nominal allies, not seeking their counsel and of placing too much trust in Saddam loyalists, including military commanders.
"We are past discussing whether al-Maliki should be the next prime minister or not," said a Shiite insider familiar with the workings of the Shiite political elite.
"There is no longer diplomacy, niceties or flattery after we lost Mosul. He is now told to his face that we reject and no longer want his leadership," said the politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.
There is not a one clear favorite to succeed al-Maliki, but the names of the widely respected Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a former vice president and a seasoned Shiite politician, and Ayad Alawi, a secular Shiite and a former prime minister, have been floated as possibilities.
Evidence of the prime minister's waning political support surfaced again on Thursday, when an emergency parliamentary session called by al-Maliki to adopt a state of emergency did not have a quorum. Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers stayed away, fearing the prime minister will abuse the extensive powers such legislation would give him.
Al-Maliki rose from virtual obscurity in 2006 to become Iraq's prime minister at a time when thousands of Iraqis were being massacred in Sunni-Shiite fighting that took the country to the brink of civil war. In 2008, he bolstered his standing as a national leader when he took on Shiite militias challenging the central government's authority.
He went on to win a second term in office in elections held in 2010, but he has since shown traits that many in Iraq see as authoritarian. For the past four years, al-Maliki has been in charge of the nation's large police force while keeping the interior minister's job vacant. He has also been the de facto defense minister, leaving the minister to run the day-to-day affairs of the ministry while he makes key decisions on armaments, deployment and tactics.
Iraqis say al-Maliki has allowed large-scale corruption to continue and failed to significantly improve their lives despite vast oil revenues. Another complaint, often repeated by Sunnis, is that the prime minister has aligned Iraq too closely with Iran, a mostly Shiite, non-Arab nation that is at odds with the Sunni-ruled, oil-rich Gulf Arab states.