Middle East

Iraq crisis: Incumbent PM Maliki left out as country moves on

Protest against PM Nouri Maliki in Baghdad Image copyright Getty Images

Nouri Maliki insists he should still be prime minister, but most of Iraq and the outside world are moving rapidly on following the official nomination of Haidar al-Abadi on Monday to try to form a government.

Mr Abadi's appointment has been hailed with relief by many Iraqis, by key militia and political leaders from Mr Maliki's own Shia community, and by many outside powers, including the US, the Arab League, the United Nations and, crucially, Iran.

It is Iran's support for Mr Abadi, as well as Washington's, that spell the end for Mr Maliki's chances of clinging on to power.

Tehran has unique influence among the multiple political groups and militia factions in the majority Shia community.

Too divisive

Iran, and the Shia religious establishment in Iraq headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have been quietly signalling for some time that they saw Mr Maliki as too divisive a figure to stand a chance of holding Iraq together, building a truly national government and using it as a springboard for a campaign to defeat the Islamic State (IS).

That task, if all goes as many hope, would fall not just to the Iraqi forces - which collapsed spectacularly at Mosul in June under Mr Maliki's command - but also to the Kurdish Peshmerga and, crucially, various Sunni nationalist factions which drove al-Qaeda out of al-Anbar province in 2007.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Haider al-Abadi has been at the top of Iraqi politics since returning from exile in 2003

None of those forces, nor the Americans and other outsiders who are willing to provide air support and other help, were ready to go to war on behalf of Mr Maliki.

His sectarian approach and alienation of Sunnis and Kurds were blamed by many for precipitating the Islamic State crisis.

With Iran signalling its support for the change of leadership in Baghdad after Washington had already done so with ill-concealed relief, it was clear that Mr Maliki had lost the support of the two key outside powers.

Both the US and Iran had supported the Kurdish-mediated understanding which allowed Mr Maliki to assume the premiership in 2010 after months of wrangling.

Now those same two key powers are supporting his nominated successor.

Iraqi Shia factions responsive to Tehran have followed that lead, including the radical Asaib Ahl al-Haqq militia which until recently was a staunch supporter of Mr Maliki and threw its fighters into the fray against the Islamic State alongside government forces.

The embattled would-be third-term prime minister signalled bitter defiance on Monday, attacking the nomination of Mr Abadi (who comes from the same al-Daawa party as Mr Maliki).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption US President Barack Obama has long been calling on PM Maliki to take a more inclusive approach to governance

He had earlier mobilised a show of force by putting security forces on the streets of Baghdad late on Sunday night.

But by Tuesday, that mobilisation had been stood down, and Mr Maliki's website called on the military and police forces to keep out of what he had earlier termed a "dangerous constitutional battle".

Perhaps he is bowing, less than gracefully, to the inevitable.

But he has also used the last four years to build up a formidable military and security network loyal to himself.

'Gargantuan task'

Under the 2010 deal he was supposed to share power with the man who actually came out marginally ahead of him in the polls, Ayyad Allawi, who was meant to head a powerful 'Supreme National Security Council'.

But that council never came into being. Mr Maliki monopolised power, retaining the defence, interior and intelligence portfolios and setting up special units under his own direct orders.

The question is whether, even if he appears to accept that life is moving on, he will try to retain a political role based on those structures.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Nouri al-Maliki still has supporters who could make life difficult for Mr Abadi

Clearly, a lot of reorganisation is going to be needed, both politically and militarily, if Iraq is to be seriously reunified and able to challenge IS. The whole setup of power in Baghdad has to be reshaped.

Even constructing a government is going to take time - a commodity in short supply, as IS continues its rampage.

Mr Abadi is certainly off to a flying start, given the near-universal relief that an alternative to the contentious Mr Maliki has finally emerged.

But he faces a gargantuan task.

Pulling the fragments of Iraq back together, and especially bringing the suspicious Sunnis back on board, is going to take a lot more than pious words and good intentions.

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