Baghdad (AFP) – Iraq moved closer to turning the page on Nuri al-Maliki’s controversial reign Monday when his own clan spurned him for another prime minister to save the country from breakup.
The much-awaited political breakthrough in Baghdad came as Kurdish troops backed by U.S. warplanes battled to turn the tide on two months of jihadist expansion in the north.
“The country is in your hands,” President Fuad Masum told Haidar al-Abadi after accepting his nomination by parliament’s Shiite bloc, in a move immediately welcomed by the United States.
Abadi, long considered a close Maliki ally, has 30 days to form a government, whose breadth the international community has stressed would determine Iraq’s ability to stop sectarian bloodshed.
Surrounded by 30-odd loyalists from his coalition, Maliki gave a speech in which he contended that said Abadi’s nomination was a violation of the constitution.
Maliki, who worked hand in glove with the U.S. when it occupied Iraq, also accused Washington of involvement, saying it “stood (on) the side of violating the constitution.”
Maliki can attempt to undermine Abadi’s efforts to build a cohesive government and can also challenge the constitutionality of the nomination but he looked more isolated than ever.
An earlier televised appearance, in which Maliki vowed to sue the president for failing to nominate him, already made clear he was not going to step down gracefully.
Earlier Monday special forces and armoured vehicles deployed across strategic locations in Baghdad.
The UN’s top envoy in Iraq called on the security forces to “refrain from actions that may be seen as interference in matters related to the democratic transfer of political authority.”
Washington had warned its erstwhile ally Maliki to “not stir those waters” and promptly welcomed Abadi’s nomination as a “key milestone”.
According to the White House, Abadi told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden he intended “to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat” posed by the Islamic State.
The jihadist group, which had already been controlling parts of Syria, launched an offensive on June 9, swiftly taking over the main northern city of Mosul before sweeping across much of the Sunni heartland.
Kurdish peshmerga initially fared better than federal troops but jihadist fighters carried out fresh attacks earlier this month, bringing them within striking distance of autonomous Kurdistan.
The threat to Kurdistan, where some U.S. personnel is based, was one of the reasons Obama gave for sending drones and fighter jets, a potential game changer in the two-month-old conflict.
Obama’s other justification was what he said was the risk of an impending genocide against the Yazidi minority, many of whose members were trapped on a barren mountain for days after fleeing a jihadist attack.
U.S. intervention appeared to make some impact on both fronts, with the Kurds reclaiming two towns on Thursday and more than 20,000 stranded Yazidis escaping their mountain death trap.
Their flight led to biblical scenes of traumatized civilians flocking back to Kurdistan after surviving with little food and water on Mount Sinjar, which legend holds as the final resting place of Noah’s Ark.
Several thousand were still thought to be hiding in the mountain however as the area remained far from safe on Monday.
Stretched thin along a 1,000-kilometre front, the peshmerga were defeated in Jalawla, a long way southeast from the U.S. bombing’s targets, in a two-day battle that left ten dead in their ranks.
The Pentagon said it had “no plans to expand the current air campaign”.
Western powers were ramping up a coordinated effort to provide the Kurds with more arms to fight the Islamic State (IS), which in late June proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
Western powers have also provided aid, air-dropping survival kits directly on Mount Sinjar or supporting the huge relief effort to cope with the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
Many had come to see Maliki as partly responsible for the violence because the June offensive exposed the weakness of the armed forces and the support IS found in some areas revealed the level of disaffection felt among Sunnis.
In the streets of Arbil, the news that Maliki was being sidelined was welcomed.
“IS came here using their enmity with Maliki as an excuse. We hope that now that Maliki is gone, the IS will become weaker,” Mohammad Wany, a writer, said.
People in a Sunni neighbourhood of the city of Baquba gathered in the street and fired shots in the air to celebrate Maliki’s political defeat.
Abadi, a Shiite politician considered close to Maliki, was born in Baghdad in 1952 and returned from British exile in 2003 when U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein.
“Up until recently, he’s been a Maliki surrogate. I have never seen much daylight between the two of them,” said Kirk Sowell, the Amman-based publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
AFP Photo/ Jean-Philippe Ksiazek