Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Haider al Abadi, seems to have the backing of nearly every major political alliance in the country, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to take office as long as the current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, holds the keys to power in the Iraqi capital.
Maliki made that point clear Wednesday in a televised address in which he once again declared his intent to fight to keep his post.
This time, he announced that Abadi’s appointment to succeed him had “no value.” Maliki also warned that chaos might follow if Iraq’s federal court doesn’t side with him in interpreting Iraq’s Constitution in his favor.
“This government will continue,” Maliki said, until a court orders him to step down.
His latest defiant speech followed a string of international endorsements for Abadi, whom Iraqi President Fouad Massoum selected Monday to be the next prime minister. Abadi has a month to form a new government. He’s indicated that he wants to find an office for Maliki.
Abadi’s selection garnered praise from U.S., Iranian and Persian Gulf representatives, who view Maliki as an obstacle to forming a unified Iraqi government that can battle Islamic State militants and undercut their support among factions that have felt besieged by Iraq’s security forces during eight years of Maliki’s rule.
In Iraq, political leaders share the same hopes for Abadi. They view him as similar to Maliki in that he hails from the Shiite Muslim-based Dawa Party – the largest single Shiite political bloc – but he advocates a more inclusive approach to governing that will be vital to settling grievances among disaffected Sunni Muslims and long-standing disagreements with the Kurds.
“This guy is going to gather Iraqis and take them out of this crisis,” said Ahmed al Masari, a Sunni lawmaker who served with Abadi in the parliament.
But it’s far from a done deal that Abadi will be able to assemble a government.
Maliki, the commander in chief, still has control over the armed forces and has consolidated his elite troops around the government complex known as the International Zone. On Wednesday, troops shut down main roads in central Baghdad while pro-Maliki demonstrators held a small rally in Firdos Square.
In his speech, Maliki said he was challenging Abadi’s appointment in order to protect the rights of voters. He called the dispute “the most dangerous battle that we have ever faced.”
Abadi, a British-educated engineer, was born in Baghdad in 1952 and joined the Dawa Party as a teenager. He spent decades in the United Kingdom while the Dawa Party was at odds with Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
He’s had a role in Iraq’s government since the American military and its allies toppled Saddam in 2003.
“The perception of those who do know him is he is much smarter than Maliki, more conciliatory, and that will serve him well,” said Hayder al Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a research center in London, who follows Iraq issues.
Abadi has been a face of the Dawa Party throughout Maliki’s two terms, serving as party spokesman and speaking for Maliki in contentious moments. One party member once called him Maliki’s “parrot.”
Now, however, some members of the party and a majority of other Shiite parties once aligned with Maliki think it’s time for a new face to lead the government.
“This situation requires a nominee who is accepted by most of Iraq,” said Abdul Hadi al Hasani, a Dawa Party member who’s a former member of parliament. “He is one of the best leaders suggested, and he is acceptable by most Iraqi political blocs.”
Politicians who have negative perceptions of Maliki are staying quiet for now, said another Sunni lawmaker, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity over Maliki’s status. Those politicians are anxious to get through a transition of power from Maliki to Abadi without damaging the next prime minister or themselves, he said.
If he can form a government, Abadi will face the same challenges that have dogged Maliki’s regime. Masari wants Abadi to better share resources with Sunni provinces and to address complaints that Maliki’s military has unfairly targeted Sunnis.
Kurdish leaders in the north released cautious statements about Abadi. They’re glad the Shiite parties chose someone other than Maliki to lead the country, but they’re concerned that Abadi won’t resolve perennial disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil over sharing revenue from oil sales.
Abadi reportedly has been maintaining Maliki’s arguments in negotiations with Kurdish officials.
“According to the work we’ve done with him, he has to make some changes in himself to address the current situation in Iraq,” Kurdish lawmaker Renas Jano told BAS News, a Kurdish media outlet.
The Kurdish and Sunni grievances are difficult challenges that have remained unsettled since the U.S.-led invasion.
Officials hope that a change of face could navigate them, even though Maliki and Abadi share similar backgrounds and views.
“It’s going to be a tough journey,” but Abadi has a much better chance than Maliki, Khoei said.
But before Abadi can get started, he has to win parliament’s approval for his Cabinet choices and settle Maliki’s legal complaint against his appointment.
Maliki filed the complaint with Iraq’s supreme court earlier this week, alleging that President Massoum subverted the constitutional process by delaying a choice for prime minister. Maliki also argued that his State of Law coalition, a Shiite group that includes the Dawa Party, should have the first choice for prime minister instead of the broader alliance that selected Abadi.
It’s not clear how the court will rule. It released a statement earlier this week that could be interpreted to favor either position.
Abdul Sattar al Deroqdar, the court’s spokesman, said judges would take their time making their decision.
“It’s too early to call it,” Khoei said. “Don’t rule (Maliki) out. He’s a survivor.”
McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.