Uncertainty grips Maliki regime in Iraq

Long-time supporter Iran wants him to go; Obama has been pressing him to move aside

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s defiant fight to retain power in Iraq appeared to collapse after his former backers in Iran, the military and his own party all signalled that he could no longer expect their support. He issued a statement saying that the security forces, which he had deployed around the capital in what some took to be preparations for a coup, should stay out of politics. And the conversation in Baghdad shifted to how he would leave office and on what terms.  The shift came after al-Maliki made several last-ditch efforts to shore up support, only to be confronted with delegations of officials, all pleading with him to back down for the good of the country. Later, an important Iraqi army general in Baghdad reached out to Iraq’s new president Fuad Masum and the man he nominated to be the next prime minister Haider al-Abadi, and delivered the message that the military would not stand by al-Maliki, according to a senior Iraqi official. 

Hours later, al-Maliki’s office released a statement that reflected both the growing opposition to him and the reality that the military probably would not back him anyway, if he tried to mount a coup: “Prime Minister Maliki urges commanders, officers and individuals to stay away from the political crisis and to commit to their military and security duties and tasks to protect the country, and not to intervene in this crisis. Leave this issue to the people, politicians and justice.” 

Iran, a longtime supporter of al-Maliki’s, also lent its weight to the constitutional process of replacing him with al-Abadi, adding pressure on al-Maliki to retreat from his threats. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also voiced its support for al-Abadi, saying in a statement, according to the Tasnim News Agency, “The Islamic Republic of Iran supports all the steps taken in line with completing the political process in Iraq.” Some Iraqis said privately that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric, also played an important role in orchestrating al-Maliki’s retreat, dispatching emissaries to Iran and successfully seeking the government’s cooperation in pressuring al-Maliki. 

The Obama administration, which has deployed US warplanes to help the Iraqi government battle a marauding force of Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq, has been pressing al-Maliki to move aside. President Barack Obama and his top aide congratulated al-Abadi and exhorted him to quickly form an inclusive government that would depart from al-Maliki’s polarising policies, which have alienated many in the Sunni and Kurd minorities. 

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States would consider expanding military and political support for Iraq if al-Abadi assumed the duties of prime minister and formed a more inclusive government. Al-Abadi, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s own Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, moved to mollify al-Maliki on Monday, urging him to join the process of government formation. However, al-Abadi pointedly referred to al-Maliki as the “outgoing” prime minister, even though al-Maliki remains Iraq’s leader, and commander in chief, until al-Abadi forms a new government. He has 30 days to do so under the constitution. 

Political gamesmanship

Al-Abadi also praised the security forces, which was seen as an effort by him to reassure military officers who may feel they owe their positions to al-Maliki and are worried about losing their jobs under new leadership. The quickly shifting messages - from a possible military coup one day, followed by late-night meetings and subtle public statements that carry deeper meanings the next - were particularly emblematic of Iraqi. 

“This is how it works in Iraq,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The message from al-Abadi to al-Maliki was, he said, “exactly what you’d expect: He’s reassuring Maliki, 'I will not throw you to the wolves.” One Shiite leader, who spoke anonymously about the confidential negotiations, said al-Maliki was “calm now and realizes that all his friends left him and joined the other camp.”  “If Maliki accepts backing Abadi,” he added, “and wants to be part of the team that forms the government, this will be his way to save face and keep his prestige as a top Shiite leader.” Adding to the pressure on al-Maliki, two important Shiite militias that are tied to political parties and aligned with Iran - forces that some had worried would fight on al-Maliki’s behalf if he insisted on remaining in power - indicated that they were on the side of the national government.
 Violence is deeply intertwined with Iraqi politics, and in the evening a car bomb exploded near al-Abadi’s family home - he himself lives mainly in the Green Zone - in a busy central district of Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding 27 more, according to a security official. The neighbourhood, Karada, is frequently targeted with bombs, but the attack immediately raised suspicions that the explosion was a message to al-Abadi. “They targeted Abadi’s house because he took the power from Maliki,” said Raad Mahmoud, who sells roasted chicken at a street kiosk near the bombing site, and lost several friends in the attack. “We haven’t gotten anything from Maliki except destruction, sectarian violence and murders.” 

Once security forces and rescue crews arrived at the site, angry residents attacked them with pipes and rocks, taunting them by accusing them of corruption - many here believe that officers accept payments to allow car bombers through checkpoints - and also voicing anger at al-Maliki. “Maliki has done this on purpose!” one person yelled. As the events unfolded, something ominous happened: Some police officers removed their uniforms and ran away. The scene evoked the mass desertion of the Iraqi soldiers in the north of the country, in June, when many ditched their uniforms and fled in the face of Islamic State militants. 

Many expect al-Maliki to work behind the scenes to sabotage al-Abadi’s efforts to form a new government. If al-Abadi fails, the process would start again, and the president would choose another nominee. “This month he will use every trick to block the formation of the government,” said a senior Iraqi official, who spoke anonymously. 

Al-Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in April’s national election, and al-Maliki personally won more votes than any other politician. But since then, he has lost much of his support among the Shiite leadership class. He has also lost a great deal of support among ordinary Iraqis, many of whom were gleeful Tuesday at al-Maliki’s apparent downfall, and many of them credited the United States with engineering his ouster.  One of them was Mwafaq Ali, a tailor in Baghdad who used to make al-Maliki’s suits.
 In the early years of his premiership, al-Maliki still visited Ali’s shop in the city. Then Ali would visit al-Maliki in his palace in the Green Zone. Then, starting in 2012, al-Maliki started buying his suits from Italy, Ali said. “I think Abadi is the right choice for the country,” Ali said. “This next phase will be better. The United States realized that Iraq was moving to the abyss.” 

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