BAGHDAD — Bowing to calls for his resignation from Iraq’s most revered cleric and his own political party, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday backed off his threat to fight the nomination of his successor and announced that he would step down from the post he has held for the past eight years.
Flanked by lawmakers from his Dawa party, al-Maliki said in a prerecorded speech that he’d support the nomination of his longtime ally turned rival, Haider al-Abadi.
“I withdraw my nomination for the benefit of my brother, Dr. Haider al-Abadi, in the supreme interest of Iraq and its people,” he said. “I will stay a soldier in the defense of Iraq.”
He cemented his decision to step aside by dropping a legal complaint he’d filed earlier this week against Iraqi President Fouad Massoum, challenging Massoum’s appointment of al-Abadi. Only Wednesday, al-Maliki had clung to that lawsuit in a fiery speech in which he gave no indication of backing down.
News reports published in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region quoted Massoum’s office as saying that al-Maliki would be named to one of Iraq’s vice presidencies in exchange for stepping aside.
Al-Maliki’s departure from office was the second major piece of good news for the Obama administration on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama had declared that the U.S. military mission to protect members of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, announced a week ago, had been a success.
The president said that an assessment team had found few Yazidis still in mountains where they’d fled Islamic State forces two weeks ago, and that the U.S. was “unlikely” to continue airdrops of food and water. The majority of 129 advisers who arrived in Iraq this week to plan new ways to assist the Yazidis would depart Iraq, the president said.
U.S. officials have been pressing for al-Maliki to step down since insurgents from the Islamic State captured the city of Mosul June 10 and began a seemingly unstoppable push toward Baghdad. Administration officials have said since then that they would not agree to a broad-based program to assist in reversing Islamic State gains until a more inclusive government was in place. They openly blamed al-Maliki for mismanaging the country’s army and alienating the Sunni Muslim minority from which the Islamic State draws its support.
National security adviser Susan Rice, in a statement issued by the White House, called al-Maliki’s speech “another major step forward in uniting” Iraq and said it was one of a series of “encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State.” But the statement made no mention of whether it would speed up the administration’s consideration of broader military assistance to Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s announcement capped a seesaw week of political intrigue in which he gave two defiant speeches vowing to fight al-Abadi’s nomination and consolidated a cadre of elite troops around the central Baghdad government complex known as the International Zone. The moves set off fears that he’d use the military to keep his government.
On Thursday, al-Maliki insisted he never intended to use the military to carry out a coup.
“I excluded from the very beginning the choice of using force because of my belief that this choice will return Iraq back to the era of dictatorship and oppression,” he said.
His decision to let go of his challenge drew praise from Iraqi lawmakers who’ve been trying to break a political impasse since April’s inconclusive national elections. Al-Maliki has been a caretaker prime minister since then.
“This is the right path for democracy and I hope the coming government will be built on abilities and competence, not anything else. This is a real start,” said Hilal al-Sahlani, a Shiite lawmaker for a party affiliated with al-Maliki’s.
Massoum’s appointment of al-Abadi drew endorsements from the United States, Iran, Shiite militias that had fought against al-Maliki in the past and most of Iraq’s major political parties.
Whether al-Abadi will be able to unite the country against the Islamic State remains to be seen. He has 30 days from his Monday appointment to announce the members of his government, which then must be approved by Parliament.
The disputes, however, are more than personal, and while al-Abadi is considered a friendlier personality and a more inclusive figure, he, like al-Maliki, has been a member of the conservative Shiite Dawa political party for years.
Choosing a candidate from Dawa minimized the disruption to Iraq’s political system, said Ben Lando, founder of Iraq Oil Report. “It was obvious that was the easiest way to get consensus on a replacement for Maliki,” Lando said.
But Dawa battled Saddam Hussein’s Baath party for years, and like al-Maliki, al-Abadi spent much of that time in exile. The difference is unlike al-Maliki, who lived those years in Iran, al-Abadi was exiled in Great Britain.
Still, there are early signs that he’ll face the same challenges. The General Political Council of Iraq Revolutionaries, an alliance of Sunni tribes opposed to al-Maliki, released a statement earlier this week saying al-Abadi would not bring the real change they needed to put down their weapons.
By the time of his speech Thursday, al-Maliki had few allies left for his political fight.
His own party officially endorsed al-Abadi on Wednesday, citing a July letter party officials received from the Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that urged them to choose a new prime minister “who enjoys wide national acceptance and who can work together with the political leadership of other parties to save the country from the risks of terror, sectarianism and division.”
Al-Maliki, after two terms leading the government, no longer fit the description.
Sunnis charge that he unjustifiably jailed thousands of young men from their communities while denying them government services. His army, meanwhile, suffered embarrassing defeats with the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June and much of western Anbar province earlier this year.
Kurds, meanwhile, have not been able to resolve perennial disputes between their regional government in the north and Baghdad on revenue sharing and oil distribution.
Some Sunni leaders have expressed hope that a change of face in the prime minister’s office would allow them to find a compromise. Others have vowed to continue challenging the government in Baghdad.
Al-Maliki came to power in 2006, when the U.S. and leaders in Iraq grew frustrated with then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s inability to build the fledgling government and slow the sectarian bloodshed that had ripped apart the country following the American invasion.
Al-Maliki worked closely with President George W. Bush to slow the fighting, but he built a national security apparatus around himself. He received a second term after a contested election in 2010 in which his party came in second place but won a court challenge that kept al-Maliki in power.
Al-Maliki suggested in his speech that he was ready to leave the government. “I don’t want any position,” he said. “My position is your trust, which is the highest and the most honest position.”