Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he has agreed to leave office and clear the way for his designated successor to take over.
The move ends a political impasse and may enable Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi to pull together a more inclusive government better able to counter Islamist militants advancing in the country’s north, and to heal sectarian and ethnic rifts threatening to tear Iraq apart.
“In order to ease the political process and the formation of the new government, I announce in front of you today that I am withdrawing my bid for prime minister,” Maliki said in a televised address last night with Abadi standing at his side.
During Iraq’s government standoff, forces of the Islamic State have pushed into new areas of northern Iraq, seized towns and a major dam near the city of Mosul, and sent thousands of members of ethnic Yezidis and Christians fleeing onto the exposed slopes of Mount Sinjar. The chaos loosened Maliki’s grip on power, as even some past allies blamed him for the political stalemate that let the Sunni militants advance.
With Iraqi warplanes striking Islamist militant positions in the western city of Fallujah, after a series of raids by American fighter jets on the insurgents in the north, Maliki’s Dawa party urged political leaders to replace the premier.
Maliki’s Shiite-dominated administration was accused by minority Sunnis of alienating their community, some of whom swung behind the Islamic State as it began a major offensive in early June.
Maliki said last night that he didn’t want to be the reason for a drop of blood to be spilled and called on other lawmakers to back Iraq’s constitution as they confronted the terror group. Referring to Abadi by name, he said the decision was “for the higher benefit of the country.”
President Barack Obama said yesterday that U.S. warplanes and ground advisers had helped break the siege of the Yezidis.
“Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain,” he said. “And it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops.”
Still, the “situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL’s terror throughout the country,” Obama said, referring to the jihadist group that now calls itself the Islamic State. “It also includes many Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds.”
Instability since militants took Mosul in June and political deadlock in Baghdad has raised concerns that output from OPEC’s second largest oil producer would be disrupted. West Texas Intermediate for September delivery was at $95.52 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down 6 cents, at 4:28 p.m. Sydney time. Brent for October settlement climbed as much as 68 cents to $102.75 a barrel on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.
Abadi has until mid-September to form a cabinet for what the U.S. says should be an “inclusive” government that can reverse sectarian measures imposed by Maliki that fueled Sunni support for Islamic State, as well as Kurdish threats of independence for their region.
Abadi’s nomination has had the unusual effect of drawing support both from the U.S. and from neighboring Iran, which has major influence over Iraq’s Shiites and funds several Shiite militia groups. The European Union and the Arab League have also backed Abadi’s appointment.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said in a statement that Maliki’s decision was one of several “encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State.”
Obama, who has said he’d be more inclined to increase military support to Iraqi forces once there’s a new government, should move quickly now to do so, said two of his most vocal critics.
“This should remove any reason for the Obama administration to delay any further in providing our full support to Iraqis and Syrians who are fighting ISIS,” said Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Republicans who have accused Obama of not pouring in enough U.S. military resources.
EU foreign ministers will be seeking signs of greater unity when they meet today in Brussels to discuss Iraq and Ukraine. France preempted a green light from all 28 EU members and yesterday started supplying Kurdish forces with weapons. The U.K., Germany and Italy have indicated they may follow.
Abd al-Khodor al-Taher, a Sunni lawmaker, said the threat of Islamic State is a result of other problems that must be fixed. Constitutional amendments need passage, more parties need to be included in the cabinet, and corruption must be eliminated, he said.
“Al-Abadi’s task will be very difficult but there is an agreement by all of the political parties to help him succeed,” he said by telephone.
“We hope that this dark page in Iraq’s modern history would be folded and never return,” said Waheed al-Samarae, an aide to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, in a telephone interview from Washington.
The outfit that morphed into Islamic State was established shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Once an affiliate of al-Qaeda, it has rampaged through northern Iraq, amid reports of beheadings and crucifixions. Its fighters have captured strategic assets to fund a self-declared Islamic caliphate announced in June and that stretches across the frontier into Syria.
Continued pressure from the militants and potential political infighting in Baghdad will create obstacles for Abadi to calm the situation.
“Al-Abadi is a weak politician and he won’t succeed, and I think in six months from now, Sunnis will demand his resignation,” said Haydar al-Saffar, a Shiite resident from Baghdad, in a telephone interview.
(A previous version of this story was corrected to change the first subheadline to ``Minority Sunnis''.)