BAGHDAD — Iraq’s political crisis deepened Monday, with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ordering military units to take up positions in the capital while the coalition his political party belongs to nominated a rival to succeed him as head of the government.
President Fouad Massoum selected Haider al Abadi, Parliament’s deputy speaker, to replace Maliki as prime minister, asking him to form a new government within 30 days.
Maliki, however, showed no sign he intended to give up his grip on power, and it was difficult to predict how the power struggle would end.
Maliki’s government will remain in place until Abadi announces a new one and receives approval from Parliament.
Maliki’s Dawa political party appeared split on whether to continue backing him _ Abadi also is a member of Dawa _ but the expected delay in naming a government and then winning Parliament’s approval, perhaps as long as six weeks, could provide Maliki with time to win support from other Shiite Muslim factions and thwart Abadi’s efforts.
Abadi “only represents himself,” Khalaf Abdul-Samad, who like Maliki and Abadi is a Dawa member, told a televised news conference.
Dawa allies from the Badr Organization, another Shiite political grouping, said they, too, had opposed Abadi’s selection. Badr’s leader, Hadi al Amiri, told Iraqi media he did not sign on to Abadi's nomination.
Abadi pledged to move quickly “to protect the people.”
The National Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite political parties that includes Dawa, chose Abadi as prime minister less than a day after Maliki announced that he would take Massoum to court over alleged constitutional violations.
Maliki late Sunday also consolidated elite Iraqi troops around the sprawling government complex known as the International Zone. Soldiers and police stood guard at many street corners, some on foot and some in trucks mounted with machine guns.
To outsiders, the troop movements looked suspiciously like an effort to intimidate Maliki’s opponents, and the United Nations issued a statement urging the soldiers not to disrupt the political process.
Maliki opponents decried the troop deployments. “The prime minister is getting kind of crazy,” said Kurdish lawmaker Serwan Abdullah Ismail.
But others saw nothing nefarious, including Abadi, who described the deployments on Twitter as “in anticipation of security threats.”
Western leaders embraced Abadi immediately. At a news conference at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, President Barack Obama praised Massoum for naming a new prime minister, calling the move a “promising step.”
“The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government,” he said.
Later, the White House said that Obama had spoken directly with Abadi, and that “both leaders agreed on the importance of forming an inclusive government representative of all communities as soon as possible.”
Vice President Joe Biden called Massoum to congratulate him on the appointment, then spoke with Abadi. “The vice president relayed President Obama’s congratulations and restated his commitment to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government, particularly in its fight against ISIL,” a White House summary said of the call, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry said Maliki’s actions could lead the U.S. to withhold further military assistance just days after American jets and drones began launching airstrikes against Islamic State positions in northern Iraq.
“One thing all Iraqis need to know, that there will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitutional process that is in place and being worked on now,” he said.
Fighting between the Islamic State and Iraqi government forces continued Monday. The Islamic State claimed to have captured the town of Jalawla in Diyala province, pushing Kurdish peshmerga militia from the town just one day after Kurds reclaimed two Christian villages near Irbil that the Islamic State seized last week.
Farther north, American jets destroyed an Islamic State convoy that had been moving to attack Kurdish forces near Irbil, according to the U.S. Central Command.
For months, U.S. officials have urged Maliki to step down, contending that his divisive leadership stood in the way of unifying the country against Islamic State militants who since June have seized territory in Iraq’s northern and western regions.
Maliki maintained he was best qualified to lead the country in its war against the militants, after serving as prime minister for the past eight years and building the nation’s security forces around his own leadership.
Maliki’s allies held their ground after Massoum’s televised address announcing Abadi’s appointment. They called the decision illegal, arguing that the nomination should have come specifically from Maliki’s State of Law coalition, a smaller grouping that includes Dawa and the Badr Organization. Instead, the nomination came from the broader National Iraqi Alliance, which in addition to Dawa and Badr includes other Shiite Muslim political factions.
“Haider al Abadi was not nominated by State of Law and nominating him has no legal value,” Maliki’s political adviser, Maryam al Ries, told al Sumaria TV.
Four years ago, Maliki made the opposite argument to Iraq’s supreme court after State of Law came in second place in national elections. Back then, Maliki argued that the broader coalition was the one whose seats should be taken into account, and the court agreed _ allowing him to be named for another term as prime minister.
Shiite lawmakers who’ve broken with Maliki believe the court will uphold the precedent of the 2010 decision and allow Abadi’s government to move forward.
“Today was a very big step forward,” said Hamid al Khudhari, an alliance lawmaker from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
Abadi has held positions in the Iraqi government since just after the U.S. invasion. He was the communications director for the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 and once was a key adviser to Maliki. Both have their political roots in the Dawa party, which long challenged Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party government and whose leaders, including Maliki, found refuge in Iran.
By tradition since the U.S. occupation, Iraq chooses a Kurd to be president, a Shiite lawmaker to be prime minster and a Sunni to be speaker of Parliament. Massoum, a Kurd, asked the National Iraqi Alliance to nominate a prime minister but the broad coalition failed to settle on a candidate until Monday. The deadline was Sunday.
Maliki on Monday submitted his complaint about Massoum to Iraqi’s supreme court. Conflicting reports emerged through the day on whether the court agreed with him.
Baghdad was tense. The government closed main roads and positioned gun trucks at intersections. Groups of soldiers and police clustered on street corners.
Thousands of young men marched through central Baghdad, carrying signs bearing Maliki’s image and chanting their support for him. They were dropped off in buses and protected by police and soldiers.
“All of the nation is with you, Nouri al Maliki,” they chanted.
Contributing to the report were McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad and Anita Kumar in Washington.