Sources: Chorus grows that al-Maliki has to go for Iraq’s sake

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — There’s a growing chorus — both in Washington and in the Arab world — that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has to go if there’s any hope of unifying Iraq as Islamic militants advance south toward Baghdad.

While some on Capitol Hill aren’t shy about saying his days as the Iraqi leader should come to an end, at the White House it’s more of a whisper.

Senior U.S. officials tell CNN that the Obama administration is of the belief that al-Maliki is not the leader Iraq needs to unify the country and end sectarian tensions.

The officials, along with Arab diplomats, say the White House is now focused on a political transition that would move Iraqis toward a more inclusive government — one without al-Maliki that would include Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.

Whatever the action, something needs to happen fast.

The lightning-fast advance by Sunni fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has toppled large portions of northern Iraq and brought the militant push to within 40 miles (64 kilometers) of the capital, Baghdad. ISIS wants to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, that would stretch from Iraq into northern Syria.

Al-Maliki: Iraqi forces rebounding

Iraq’s military and the militants have been fighting for control of Iraq’s main oil refinery in Baiji, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) north of Baghdad.

In a phone interview on state-run al-Iraqiya TV on Thursday, Col. Ali Al Qureshi, the commander of troops responsible for protecting the refinery, said Iraqi armed forces were in full control.

He said the militants had suffered dozens of casualties in the course of multiple attacks but had failed to take the refinery complex.

CNN was not able independently to confirm the casualty numbers or the situation on the ground, amid conflicting reports.

Police officials said Wednesday that militants had managed to take over some 60% of the complex and set fire to five storage containers.

Iraq’s military had said earlier in the day that the situation in Baiji, as well as Samarra and Tal Afar, was “under control.”

“We absorbed the initial shock of the military operations, and now we are on the rebound. We will respond and keep the momentum,” al-Maliki said in a weekly address. “What happened was a catastrophe, but not every catastrophe is a defeat.”

The refinery is a key strategic resource because so much of Iraq’s economy depends on its oil production. The country produces 3.3 million barrels per day and has the world’s fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves, according to OPEC.

Meanwhile, at least three people were killed and 15 others injured when a car bomb and two roadside bombs exploded in three separate areas in Baghdad on Thursday, police officials there told CNN.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, told Congress that the United States has received a request from the Iraqi government to use its air power in the conflict.

Curbing sympathies

Al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government has marginalized Sunnis and Kurds. There’s hope that a government bringing them into the political process would curb sympathies for ISIS by those who find themselves on the outside.

A change in government can’t come too soon for some in Washington

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said al-Maliki has to be convinced that it’s in the country’s best interest for him to retire.

“I think that most of us that have followed this are really convinced that the Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation,” she said this week.

Publicly though, the White House isn’t being as direct.

Earlier this week in a Yahoo!News interview, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States shouldn’t be dictating to the Iraqi people that al-Maliki needs to resign.

“Now, we clearly can play an encouraging, consultative role in helping them to achieve that transition, and we have people on the ground right now,” he said.

Obama takes lead

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama huddled with congressional leaders, briefing them on options he is considering.

A few hours earlier, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Dempsey said they were working out details on possible U.S. steps that could include airstrikes on Sunni militants advancing through northern Iraq.

House Speaker John Boehner demanded that Obama lay out a “broader strategy” but sidestepped a question about whether he supported airstrikes.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke out forcefully against sending U.S. service members into Iraq. “This is an Iraqi civil war, and it is time for Iraqis to resolve it themselves,” he said.

In their meeting, Obama effectively told congressional leaders that while he’d let them know what was going on, he didn’t need any new permission to act in Iraq.

While a White House statement emphasized that Obama would continue to consult with Congress, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the President “basically just briefed us on the situation in Iraq and indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for the steps that he might take.”

Several military sources have confirmed to CNN that manned reconnaissance flights over Iraq to collect up-to-the-minute intelligence on ISIS movements and positions have begun. Unmanned reconnaissance flights have been going on already for several days.

CNN’s Elise Labott reported from Washington, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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