Maliki Signals He’ll Step Aside Peacefully, Easing Tensions in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (McClatchy Foreign Staff/MCT) -
Flight deck crew member gives a thumbs up to take off to pilot of F/A-18C Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron to take off the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, in the Gulf Tuesday, 2014. Planes have been taking off from the USS George H.W. Bush to strike key positions taken over by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq.  (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)
Flight deck crew member gives a thumbs up to take off to pilot of F/A-18C Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron to take off the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, in the Gulf Tuesday, 2014. Planes have been taking off from the USS George H.W. Bush to strike key positions taken over by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

Tensions eased in Iraq’s capital Tuesday as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki gave his first signals that he’s preparing to step down from his post as Prime Minister-designate Haider al Abadi began forming a new government.

In a statement, Maliki urged the nation’s military “to stay away from the political crisis,” indicating that he won’t use the armed forces to hold on to his office.

It was a significant reversal in tone for Maliki, who on Monday held a press conference in which he and political allies accused Abadi of a power grab and said they would fight his appointment.

At the same time, Maliki lost one of his most important allies when top officials in the Iranian government publicly embraced Abadi’s nomination.

The word came from Ali Shamkani, a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Iranian state news reported that Shamkani voiced Iran’s support for Iraq’s constitutional process and urged Iraqis to unite behind their national government.

Those signals gave a sense of palpable relief to Iraqi leaders who feared that Maliki would refuse to give up his office.

On Sunday, Maliki ordered a cadre of elite troops to reinforce the government complex known as the International Zone, and he gave a defiant speech in which accused Iraqi President Fouad Massoum of constitutional violations.

His actions set off fears that he’d use military force to stay in power even as Iraq’s military is fighting Sunni Muslim extremists from the Islamic State across its northern and western provinces. A bloc of Kurdish lawmakers on Monday released a statement saying they worried Maliki was preparing a coup.

One senior military official with the Kurdish security forces, who have been battling the Islamic State along multiple fronts for nearly two weeks, welcomed the apparent decision to move forward without Maliki in selecting a new prime minister.

“It looks like this Maliki nightmare is over,” said the official, who asked not to be quoted by name because he did not have permission to comment from Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s office.

“Moving forward will mean more assistance from the Americans but it will also give new leadership and a sense to urgency to the Iraqi Army. Resolving the succession issue will allow the Iraqi Army to get back to work.”

The official added that as the crisis has unfolded, Iraqi army officials had appeared distracted and uncertain about how to proceed because of Maliki’s tight control over the military and uncertainty about how unified the government would remain.

“These distractions particularly hurt us in Diyala Province where we coordinate more with the Iraqi Army than we do in the north,” he said, referring to an area where Islamic State terrorists have made inroads, including capturing the town of Jalawal on Monday. “Territory was lost along that front, I think, because the Iraqi army seemed unsure about its leadership situation.”

Abadi has 30 days to form a new government and gain approval for his choices from parliament. He announced that he plans to choose his ministers within a week. He also tweeted that Maliki would have a continuing role in Iraq’s government.

Abadi and Maliki both hail from Iraq’s Dawa Party, a Shiite-based party that battled Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from exile for decades before Saddam’s ouster by U.S. troops.