Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki announced Thursday he is relinquishing his power and backing party rival Haider al-Abadi, ending his increasingly improbable bid to cling to his premiership amid widespread opposition from within Iraq and mounting pressure from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq's parliament, and his own Shiite political alliance to step down.
The news, delivered by al-Maliki over Iraqi state television, marked a departure from previous indicators that al-Maliki would not relinquish his role without a fight. In the midst of a power struggle between al-Maliki and al-Abadi, the former deployed military forces around the capital over the weekend. After learning that Iraqi President Fouad Massoum had nominated al-Abadi to form the country's newgovernment, al-Maliki mounted a legal challenge to al-Abadi's rise.
But on Thursday, al-Maliki appeared on state television standing beside al-Abadi and declared, "I announce before you today, to facilitate the political process and to form a new government, that I withdraw my candidacy in favor of the brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi, and all that goes with that in order to preserve the high interests of the country." The ousted premier is expected to seek a role in Iraq's new government and protection from prosecution.
U.S. National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice praised the move: "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 of Iraq and the Levant."
While al-Maliki has recently faced diminishing political support from global players, including the United States, he rose to power in 2006 as a direct result of U.S. backing of his premiership, and more broadly, a sectarian political system for Iraq. Critics say this was part of the divide-and-rule logic undergirding the U.S. war. "The theory is that if Iraqis are not secular and national in their orientation as they were under the Baathists—by coercion or not—they will be easier to control," Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams.
Al-Maliki has been broadly criticized and protested in Iraq for violently repressing political protest, discriminating against, executing, and torturing Sunnis, and ultimately paving the way for the country's current crisis by driving his opponents to form political alliances with, or join, ISIS.
When he first came to power, al-Maliki pushed to disarm Sunni militias before Shiite ones, a move that allowed Shiite militias to ethnically cleanse numerous Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. Throughout his tenure he has repeatedly excluded and pushed Sunnis out of the political process, while privileging his Shiite supporters.
When peaceful protests broke out in 2013 in opposition to discrimination against Sunni Iraqis, political marginalization, and aggressive de-Baathification laws, al-Maliki sent in Iraq's military to crush them. The Hawija massacre in April 2013 killed at least 50 protesters and wounded over 100.
Armed with U.S. weapons, al-Maliki earlier this year repeatedly bombed civilian areas of Anbar Province in its military operations against ISIS.
Al-Abadi has a long track record as a member of al-Maliki's Shia Dawa party and has, at times, acted as his spokesperson. Critics warn that that the problems with Iraq's political system are deep and cannot be easily solved by replacing one Dawa party prime minister with another.
Scholar and writer Zaineb Saleh argued in late June:
The key question is not whether al-Maliki will remain in office; any successor—who according to the current sectarian allotment of positions must also be Shi’a—will similarly manipulate communal sentiment and fears to weaken rivals and aggrandize power.
The problem is the sectarian quota system. Based on the marginalization of secular and national forces, it presents a huge challenge to any serious political solution in Iraq. The sad reality is that once sectarianism becomes institutionalized it is very difficult to overcome.
According to Bennis, "We have to be very cautious in assessing what the consequences may or may not be. Al-Abadi comes from the same political party as al-Maliki and has made certain statements indicating interest in a more inclusive form of government. But what that really means in the real world we don't know yet."