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In Iraq, Maliki Throws in the Towel

In Iraq, Maliki Throws in the Towel

Confronted with the reality that he could only try to cling to power through the use of sheer force, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suddenly blinked.

On Thursday, the embattled Iraqi leader relinquished power and dropped the legal challenge to his successor, Haider al-Abadi, a member of his own Shiite Islamist Dawa Party. Abadi now has 30 days to form a new cabinet, and he will be under intense pressure from both Washington and Tehran — Iraq’s biggest patrons — to give powerful positions to members of the country’s embattled Sunni minority. The ministries of defense and the interior, which oversee Iraq’s security forces, have long been sought by Sunni leaders.

Appearing on state television alongside his rival, Maliki pledged to support "brother" Abadi, citing the need for national unity.

It had only been days earlier, on Monday, when Maliki protested the appointment of Abadi by Iraq’s president in a lawsuit. The move ends an intense stand-off that saw Maliki order extra security guards around the capital and triggered fears of a military coup. In the end, the spectacular conquest of wide swaths of northern Iraq by Sunni militants and Islamic State forces convinced Tehran, Washington and Iraq’s political class that Maliki had to go in order to bring the country out of a crisis.

For months, Maliki’s support from his patrons has been weakening, and on Tuesday, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council, formally endorsed al-Abadi, while making clear that Tehran believes Maliki’s time in office is over. 

"We congratulate Haider al-Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population, and its political groups," Shamkhani said, according to the official IRNA news agency. Iran, Shamkhani said, supports "the legal process for choosing the new Iraqi prime minister." 

The comments were striking for both their unambiguous message and their source. Shamkhani has close personal ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and spent much of his career in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hard-line paramilitary force tasked with ensuring the continued rule of Iran’s clerical leadership. That means that Shamkhani was likely speaking for all components of Iran’s power structure, from the supreme leader on down.

Tehran dropped Maliki just one day after U.S. President Barack Obama called Abadi to congratulate him on his appointment and to urge him to quickly form a new unity government. In brief public remarks, the president pointedly did not mention Maliki even once — a snub clearly signaling the White House’s strong desire for the hard-line leader to exit the stage.

Michael Eisenstadt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Maliki had lost support inside and outside Iraq, with 38 of the 96 lawmakers in his State of Law bloc backing Abadi just as Washington and Tehran effectively told him to throw in the towel.