Blair: Al-Maliki must change or go

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must either change his style or step down if the war-torn country ever hopes to heal, Tony Blair said Sunday.

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The former British prime minister sided squarely with the Obama administration's insistence that al-Maliki, who has resisted all calls to give the Sunnis and Kurds a greater role in his Shiite-controlled government, be more inclusive or risk tearing the nation apart.

"The U.S. is absolutely right and would [have] the full support of the international community ... to say to Prime Minister Maliki either he has to change or the government has to change," Blair said in an interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

President Obama has so far declined requests from al-Maliki to launch missile strikes against militants representing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who have overrun several major Iraqi cities in their quest to topple Baghdad. The president says he's not ruling out any options, but he's also warned that no military assistance is forthcoming if the sides don't take diplomatic steps to end the crisis on their own.

Blair pointed out two underlying factors fueling the chaos: al-Maliki's reluctance to empower other groups, and the rise of Islamic extremists in Syria who have spilled into Iraq in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal two years ago.

"We've got in the short-term to push them back as hard as possible. I think the president is right to send help to the Iraqis to be helping Syrian opposition, the moderate Syrian opposition," Blair said.

"But in the longer term, we're going to have to get a strategy for the Middle East that identifies correctly the problem, which is this extremism, and bears down on it wherever we can, however we can with the allies we have in the region."

Blair argued the importance of leveraging recent comments by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, who called last month for a new government better suited for unifying the splintered nation.

"That's very, very important for the future," Blair said. "It is much easier for the United States and others to help if there was a government in Iraq that was genuinely inconclusive, that had the support of Ayatollah Sistani and that could command support in a fight against extremism."