Support grows for Iraq's new PM as Iran abandons Nouri al-Maliki

Incumbent Maliki fights Iraqi president's nomination of rival as prime minister, while US leader calls on newcomer to form an inclusive cabinet

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 9:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 1:00am

Iraq's premier designate yesterday gained widespread support from countries hoping political reconciliation will undercut jihadist gains, as Iran further dashed Nouri al-Maliki's hopes of clinging to power.

The US urged Maliki's successor, Haidar al-Abadi, to rapidly form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against the Islamic State-led militants who have overrun swathes of the country.

Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament and a veteran of Maliki's Dawa party, came from behind in a protracted and acrimonious race to become Iraq's new premier when President Fuad Masum accepted his nomination and tasked him with forming a government.

He has 30 days to build a team which will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that Islamic State "is not the only game in town".

"We are urging him to form a new cabinet as swiftly as possible and the US stands ready to support a new and inclusive Iraqi government and particularly its fight against [Islamic State]," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Sydney yesterday.

He also reiterated Washington's stance that US air strikes launched last week were not a prelude to the reintroduction of American combat forces.

In a further blow for Maliki, Iran yesterday ended its long-time support for him and swung its allegiance behind Abadi.

"We congratulate Haidar al-Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population and its political groups," Ali Shamkhani, secretary and representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said.

Born in 1952, Abadi was an electrical engineer before entering Iraq's government after the US-led invasion in 2003. He was part of the political opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime and lived in Britain for many years. Two siblings were executed in 1982 for their membership in the then-outlawed Dawa party.

James Jeffrey, who served as the US ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, said he had met Abadi in Baghdad and believed he was "someone the United States could work with".

He said that Abadi's main strength was that "he's not Maliki" and had not alienated Iraqi groups.

The political transition comes at a time of crisis for Iraq. After seizing the main northern city of Mosul in early June and sweeping through much of the Sunni heartland, jihadist militants bristling with US-made military equipment captured from retreating Iraqi troops launched another onslaught this month.

They attacked Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities west, north and east of Mosul, sparking a mass exodus that took the number of Iraqis displaced this year past one million.

Obama had made it clear he thought no effective and coordinated anti-jihadist counter-offensive could take place while Maliki was still in charge.

The Shiite leader appeared determined to pull every stop to stay in power for a third term.

Surrounded by 30-odd loyalists from his Shiite bloc, Maliki gave a speech denouncing Abadi's nomination as a violation of the constitution and accused the US of working to undermine him.

But, even if he could still complicate the handover of power, he looked more isolated than ever.

Maliki yesterday ordered the armed forces to "stay away from the political crisis", assuaging fears that he could seek to leverage his military power to stay in power.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Bloomberg