Iraqi president names Haider al-Abadi as new prime minister but al-Maliki remains defiant

Baghdad: Iraq’s president named prominent Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi as the country’s new prime minister on Monday, dislodging incumbent Nouri al-Maliki after eight years in office despite a show of force as he clung to power.

President Fouad Massoum called on Abadi, a member of Maliki’s ruling party and currently the deputy speaker of parliament, to form a new government.

Maliki has been standing his ground despite mounting pressure from domestic opponents and the Obama administration for him to step aside. He has been widely blamed for the growth of an insurgency by Sunni Muslim extremists that has ravaged the country.

“Now the Iraqi people are in your hands,” Massoum said as he shook hands with Abadi in a ceremony in Baghdad after Shiite politicians named him as their candidate. Massoum took office last month.

Earlier, the United States warned Maliki that he risked further destabilising Iraq and jeopardising international support by clinging to power.


Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that Maliki, who became prime minister in 2006 with US backing, had lost Washington’s support.

“We believe that the vast majority of Iraqis are united in an effort to be able to have this peaceful transition” to a new government, Kerry said shortly after arriving in Australia for annual security and diplomatic talks. “We believe that the government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is Mr Maliki will not stir those waters.”

Kerry spoke a day after Iraqi special forces teams and army tanks surrounded the Green Zone housing the country’s government as Maliki resisted giving up power, escalating a political crisis at a time when Iraq is already facing a lethal challenge from radical Islamist fighters.

In actions that had all the markings of a political coup, Maliki gave a defiant speech in Baghdad late on Sunday saying he would lodge a legal case against the country’s president, who had resisted naming him as a candidate for another term as prime minister.

Tanks rumbled onto major bridges and roads in the capital as security forces were put on high alert, with militiamen also patrolling Shiite neighbourhoods. The special forces teams surrounding the Green Zone were taking orders directly from the prime minister, security officials said.

But there were indications that Maliki’s actions had turned the tide further against him.

“It has backfired and was unwise,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who served as foreign minister in the Maliki government. “We have passed the stage of military coups and taking power by force.”

He said there was a “major defection” from Maliki’s political coalition in the wake of his “aggressive” speech, with 127 signatures gathered from Shiite parliamentarians Monday morning backing Abadi.

Maliki’s critics accused him of overseeing the de facto fragmentation of the country, with extremists from the Sunni-dominated Islamic State marauding through territory in the north and west and threatening Baghdad. They say Maliki, a Shiite, has persecuted and alienated members of the Sunni minority, driving them into the arms of radical groups.

Although Kerry said the choice of leader is up to Iraqis, he made clear Monday that US patience with Maliki has run out.

“Iraq has clearly made a statement that they are looking for change,” Kerry said in Sydney.

Maliki dug in his heels as his majority Shiite bloc swung away from him and prepared to nominate someone else as prime minister. The United States has backed Iraq’s president in a constitutional standoff with Maliki as the country missed a deadline last week to name a new prime minister.

Maliki accuses Massoum, from the ethnic Kurdish minority, of violating the constitution by missing the deadline. The political crisis is paralysing Baghdad as the militant Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL or ISIS) surges across the country’s north and west. The United States agreed last week to Maliki’s long-standing request for American airstrikes against the militants, but US officials stress that the military action is not intended to gird Maliki’s political position.

“We stand absolutely, squarely behind President Massoum,” Kerry said before the appointment of Abadi as the new prime minister.

“Among the Shia, it is very, very evident that they have three candidates or so for prime minister, none of whom are Mr Maliki,” Kerry said.

He urged calm and a speedy move to form the new government.

“There should be no use of force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq,” Kerry said.

“There will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitutional process that is in place and being worked on now,” Kerry added.

In Twitter messages after the appointment of Abadi was announced, senior State Department official Brett McGurk said the United States welcomes Massoum’s decision.

“The United States stands ready to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government, particularly in its fight against” the Islamic State insurgents, said McGurk, who serves as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran.

The United States began airstrikes in northern Iraq on Friday as the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State threatened previously stable Kurdish territory, sending thousands of minority Christians and Yazidis fleeing for their lives. But President Obama has established limited goals in the air operation, linking further assistance to the formation of a new government in Baghdad that is more inclusive of the country’s Sunnis.

The latest crisis came on a day when Kurdish forces expelled Islamic State extremists from two northern Iraqi towns, in the first signs of a turnaround for the embattled Kurds after a week of stunning losses to the militants. Their success came in the wake of US airstrikes on the towns.

A senior US State Department official would not say whether the United States is providing arms to the Kurdish pesh merga forces but made clear the Obama administration is participating in some way in a coordinated international effort.

“They are being armed from various sources,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to give limited detail on the secretive operation.

“They’re getting some things pretty rapidly,” the official said.

The political standoff raised the prospect of deeper turmoil and potentially new violence in Iraq, where Shiite militias that had battled US troops during the war have re-established themselves in recent months.

Maliki’s political rivals, the country’s religious authorities and even parts of his political bloc have tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to step aside. But over his eight years in office, the prime minister has consolidated enormous power in his hands. He is commander in chief of the armed forces, and he holds the defence and Interior ministry portfolios.

The prime minister’s political bloc won the largest share of seats in April’s parliamentary elections, but not a majority. In his speech, he charged that Massoum had violated the constitution by not asking Maliki’s political bloc to put forward its candidate before a deadline last week.

“This act represented a coup against the constitution and the constitutional process,” Maliki said. Violation of the constitution could have serious and dangerous consequences, he said, taking the political process into a “dark tunnel”.

Iraqi special forces also surrounded the presidential palace on Sunday, in what appeared to be an act of intimidation.

As the politicians wrangled on Monday, around 20 busloads of pro-Maliki demonstrators arrived from the southern provinces on Monday in an attempt to show support for the incumbent. The local office of Maliki’s Dawa party had organised the government buses to bring the demonstrators to the capital, where they were provided with free food, said Ghaith Karim, 17, from Babil province.

Maliki has made enemies across the political spectrum — even Iraq’s Shiite leaders have turned against him. The country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, has also repeatedly called for a new, inclusive government, hinting that politicians should not “cling to their positions”.

“Sistani is deeply concerned about the situation,” said Sheik Haider al-Taie, one of the cleric’s representatives.

Iran’s ayatollahs came out in public support of Sistani, a sign that Iranian support for Maliki has also slipped away. As the odds began to stack against the prime minister, his party indicated that it was prepared to cut him loose last month.

“There are self-serving people who are trying to get rid of him,” said Kadhim al-Sayadi, a parliamentarian close to the president. He said security forces had been called out to prevent people from “taking advantage” of the situation.

The Washington Post