BAGHDAD — Embattled Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki stepped aside Thursday, clearing the way for a new prime minister and an expansion of U.S. military assistance at a moment when a raging insurgency threatens to tear the country apart.
The 64-year-old premier, who had provoked a political crisis by refusing to cede power after eight years, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Haider al-Abadi, his rival, in an appearance on state television, as al-Maliki announced that he would yield to his “brother” for the sake of Iraq’s unity.
Al-Maliki has become a deeply divisive figure but had clung to his position in the face of a growing consensus among Iraq’s politicians and the international community that only a new leader would have a chance of unifying a country experiencing growing sectarian divisions. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, had been accused of marginalizing the minority Sunni population, providing an opening for Sunni extremist fighters belonging to the al-Qaida splinter group the Islamic State.
His refusal to step aside had split his party and his political bloc. In recent days, al-Maliki had raised fears of a coup by ordering his security forces onto the streets as Abadi’s name was forwarded to form a government. But his resignation speech on Thursday was heralded as historic in a region where the smooth handover of power in a democratic framework is rare.
“I announce before you today, to facilitate the functioning of the political process and the formation of a new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Haider al-Abadi,” al-Maliki said during the speech, in which he listed his achievements since taking office in 2006.
The White House commended al-Maliki for backing down and noted that leaders from across the Iraqi political spectrum and “all over the world” indicated they were committed to supporting Abadi, who, like al-Maliki, is a Shiite.
“These are encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented” by the Islamic State, said a statement by Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. “The United States remains committed to a strong partnership with Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Al-Maliki’s removal opens the door for further U.S. military support to Iraq. A week ago, an American air campaign was launched in the country’s north, where Islamic State militants have been threatening the forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and driving huge numbers of refugees – many from minority religious groups – to flee their homes.
Obama and other senior officials have repeatedly referred in recent weeks to their hopes for a new government in Iraq, and they warned that greater U.S. assistance in fending off the extremists depended on al-Maliki’s replacement with a more suitable candidate.
In Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital, U.S. officials were actively involved in trying to persuade Iraqi political leaders to come to agreement on new leadership. Once Abadi had been asked to form a government, the administration immediately began addressing him as the “prime minister-designate,” and Obama called him with congratulations this week.
In comments Thursday before al-Maliki’s announcement, Obama said that Abadi “still has a challenging task in putting a government together, but we are modestly hopeful that the Iraqi government situation is moving in the right direction.”
In his speech, al-Maliki said he had withdrawn the legal case he had lodged against President Fouad Massoum for nominating Abadi to form a government. Al-Maliki had argued that he should have been tasked with forming the next government, since the bloc he led had won the most seats in nationwide elections in April.
Al-Maliki was persuaded to stand down after a meeting with senior members of his party Thursday evening, said Saad al-Muttalibi, who belongs to the ruling State of Law coalition. “The problem is resolved,” Muttalibi said.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, played a role in ushering al-Maliki out, repeatedly hinting in his Friday sermons that he supported a change and finally writing to al-Maliki’s Dawa party to advise the selection of a new prime minister. Crucially, Iran, which wields significant influence in Iraqi politics, had also backed Abadi.
“He was at a dead end road,” said Ibrahim al-Ulloum, a senior member of the Shiite Muwatin party. “But hopefully this will help to bring stability.”
Still, despite the broad endorsements of Abadi, there are concerns that he will be seen as too closely associated with al-Maliki’s tenure. Abadi is a long-term member of the Dawa party who has regularly appeared as a spokesman for the outgoing premier.
“He’s going to face the same problems as al-Maliki, 1/8the Islamic State3/8 is not going to go away,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an Iraq analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “It’s not rosy pink. The outlook is bleak, but there’s hope at least.”