BAGHDAD – Iraq’s political crisis deepened Monday, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordering military units to take up positions in the capital while the coalition his political party belongs to nominated a rival to succeed him as head of the government.
President Fouad Massoum selected Haider al-Abadi, Parliament’s deputy speaker, to replace al-Maliki as prime minister, asking him to form a new government within 30 days.
Al-Maliki, however, showed no sign he intended to give up his grip on power, and it was difficult to predict how the power struggle would end.
The showdown came as the United States increased its role in fighting back Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group that is threatening the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Senior American officials said U.S. intelligence agencies are directly arming the Kurds who are battling the militants in what would be a shift in Washington’s policy of working only through the central government in Baghdad.
Al-Maliki’s government will remain in place until al-Abadi announces a new one and receives approval from Parliament.
Al-Maliki’s Dawa political party appeared split on whether to continue backing him – al-Abadi also is a member of Dawa – but the expected delay in naming a government and then winning Parliament’s approval, perhaps as long as six weeks, could provide al-Maliki with time to win support from other Shiite Muslim factions and thwart al-Abadi’s efforts.
Al-Abadi “only represents himself,” Khalaf Abdul-Samad, who like al-Maliki and al-Abadi is a Dawa member, said at a televised news conference.
Dawa allies from the Badr Organization, another Shiite political grouping, said they, too, had opposed al-Abadi’s selection. Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Amiri, told Iraqi media he did not sign on to al-Abadi’s nomination.
Al-Abadi pledged to move quickly “to protect the people.”
The National Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite political parties that includes Dawa, chose al-Abadi as prime minister less than a day after al-Maliki announced that he would take Massoum to court over alleged constitutional violations.
Al-Maliki also consolidated elite Iraqi troops around the sprawling government complex known as the International Zone late Sunday. Soldiers and police stood guard at many street corners, some on foot and some in trucks mounted with machine guns.
To outsiders, the troop movements looked suspiciously like an effort to intimidate al-Maliki’s opponents, and the United Nations issued a statement urging the soldiers not to disrupt the political process.
Al-Maliki opponents decried the troop deployments. “The prime minister is getting kind of crazy,” said Kurdish lawmaker Serwan Abdullah Ismail. But others saw nothing nefarious in the troop movements, including al-Abadi, who described the deployments on Twitter as “in anticipation of security threats.”
Western leaders embraced al-Abadi immediately. At a news conference at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Obama praised Massoum for naming a new prime minister, calling the move a “promising step.”
“The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government,” he said. Later, the White House said that Obama had spoken directly with al-Abadi, and that “both leaders agreed on the importance of forming an inclusive government representative of all communities as soon as possible.”
Vice President Biden called Massoum to congratulate him on the appointment, then spoke with al-Abadi. “The vice president relayed President Obama’s congratulations and restated his commitment to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government, particularly in its fight against ISIL,” a White House summary said of the call, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said al-Maliki’s actions could lead the United States to withhold further military assistance just days after American jets and drones began launching airstrikes against Islamic State positions in northern Iraq.
“One thing all Iraqis need to know, that 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,” he said.
Fighting between the Islamic State and Iraqi government forces continued Monday. The Islamic State claimed to have captured the town of Jalawla in Diyala province, pushing Kurdish peshmerga militia from the town just one day after Kurds reclaimed two Christian villages near Irbil that the Islamic State seized last week.
Farther north, American jets destroyed an Islamic State convoy that had been moving to attack Kurdish forces near Irbil, according to the U.S. Central Command.
For months, U.S. officials have urged al-Maliki to step down, contending that his divisive leadership stood in the way of unifying the country against Islamic State militants who since June have seized territory in Iraq’s northern and western regions.
Al-Maliki maintained he was best-qualified to lead the country in its war against the militants, after serving as prime minister for the past eight years and building the nation’s security forces around his own leadership.
Al-Maliki’s allies held their ground after Massoum’s televised address announcing al-Abadi’s appointment. They called the decision illegal, arguing that the nomination should have come specifically from Maliki’s State of Law coalition, a smaller grouping that includes Dawa and the Badr Organization. Instead, the nomination came from the broader National Iraqi Alliance, which in addition to Dawa and Badr includes other Shiite Muslim political factions.
“Haider al-Abadi was not nominated by State of Law and nominating him has no legal value,” al-Maliki’s political adviser, Maryam al-Ries, told Alsumaria TV.
Four years ago, al-Maliki made the opposite argument to Iraq’s Supreme Court after State of Law came in second place in national elections. Back then, al-Maliki argued that the broader coalition was the one whose seats should be taken into account, and the court agreed – allowing him to be named for another term as prime minister.
Shiite lawmakers who’ve broken with al-Maliki believe the court will uphold the precedent of the 2010 decision and allow al-Abadi’s government to move forward.
“Today was a very big step forward,” said Hamid al-Khudhari, an alliance lawmaker from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
Al-Abadi has held positions in the Iraqi government since just after the U.S. invasion. He was the communications director for the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 and once was a key adviser to Maliki. Both have their political roots in the Dawa party, which long challenged then-dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government and whose leaders, including al-Maliki, found refuge in Iran.
By tradition since the U.S. occupation, Iraq chooses a Kurd to be president, a Shiite lawmaker to be prime minster and a Sunni to be speaker of Parliament. Massoum, a Kurd, asked the National Iraqi Alliance to nominate a prime minister but the broad coalition failed to settle on a candidate until Monday. The deadline was Sunday.
Al-Maliki on Monday submitted his complaint about Massoum to Iraqi’s supreme court. Conflicting reports emerged through the day on whether the court agreed with him.
Baghdad was tense. The government closed main roads and positioned gun trucks at intersections. Groups of soldiers and police clustered on street corners.
Meanwhile, thousands of young men marched through central Baghdad, carrying signs bearing al-Maliki’s image and chanting their support for him. Protected by police and soldiers, they chanted, “All of the nation is with you, Nouri al-Maliki.”