Political showdown in Iraq as Maliki refuses to go

Supporters declare move to replace prime minister illegal as militias deployed on streets

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:58

Iraq’s president named a new prime minister to end Nuri al-Maliki’s eight year rule today, but the veteran leader refused to go after deploying militias and special forces on the streets, creating a dangerous political showdown in Baghdad.

Washington, which helped install Mr Maliki following its 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, congratulated Haidar al-Abadi, a former Maliki lieutenant who was named by president Fouad Masoum to replace him.

But Mr Maliki’s Dawa Party declared his replacement illegal, and Mr Maliki’s son-in-law said he would overturn it in court. Washington delivered a stern warning to Mr Maliki not to “stir the waters” by using force to cling to power.

A Shia Muslim Islamist, Mr Maliki is blamed by his erstwhile allies in Washington and Tehran for driving the alienated Sunni minority into a revolt that threatens to destroy the country. Leaders of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities have demanded he go, and many fellow Shi’ites have turned against him.

Mr Maliki himself said nothing about the decision to replace him, standing in grim-faced silence today next to a member of his Dawa Party, who read out a statement on national television declaring Mr Abadi’s nomination illegal.

Mr Abadi “represents only himself”, the Dawa member, Khalaf Abdul-Samad said.

Mr Maliki’s son-in-law Hussein al-Maliki told Reuters his camp would fight the “illegal” decision: “We will not stay silent.”

“The nomination is illegal and a breach of the constitution. We will go to the federal court to object.”

Washington made its support for the new leader clear. The White House said vice president Joe Biden relayed president Barack Obama’s congratulations to Mr Abadi in a phone call.

“The prime minister-designate expressed his intent to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis),” the White House said in a statement, using a previous name for the Sunni militant group that now calls itself the Islamic State.

A series of US airstrikes since last week has slowed the operational tempo of the Islamic State, but is unlikely to substantially weaken the group, the Pentagon said today.

The Obama administration late last week said it would conduct strikes to protect U.S. personnel in Arbil from the militant group, which has gained strength during the war in neighboring Syria, and to ensure that northern Iraq’s minority Yazidis were not subject to systematic violence at the hands of the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim militants.

The 15 airstrikes carried out so far are the first direct US military action in Iraq since the Obama administration completed its withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, hoping to mark an end to the long, bloody US military involvement in the country.