BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president formally nominated a candidate Monday to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The step broke a monthslong political deadlock, but it also seemed to take Iraq into uncharted territory, as al-Maliki gave no signal that he was willing to relinquish power.
The nomination of Haider al-Abadi, who is a member of al-Maliki’s Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, came hours after a dramatic late-night television appearance in which a defiant al-Maliki challenged the Iraqi president, Fouad Massoum, and threatened legal action for not choosing him as the nominee.
As he spoke in the middle of the night, extra security forces, including special forces units loyal to al-Maliki, as well as tanks, locked down the fortified Green Zone of government buildings and took up positions around the city. Soldiers manned numerous checkpoints Monday. The atmosphere in the capital was tense.
There were no immediate signs Monday afternoon that al-Maliki had taken further steps to use military force to guarantee his survival. He was scheduled to make a public statement on television, along with other members of his Dawa Party who remain loyal to him.
Al-Maliki’s late-night television appearance, in which he appeared to be trying to intimidate Massoum by mentioning the army in the context of protecting the constitution, alarmed US officials, and left Baghdad wondering if a coup was imminent.
Under Iraq’s Constitution, al-Abadi now has 30 days in which to form a government that offers meaningful positions to Iraq’s main minority factions, Sunnis and Kurds. During that time, al-Maliki will remain as a caretaker leader, and as commander-in-chief of Iraq’s security forces.
The Dawa Party, to which both al-Maliki and al-Abadi belong, has its roots in the clandestine political opposition to the Sunni Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Like many of Iraq’s current leaders, al-Abadi lived in exile during part of the Saddam era. He has recently been first deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament.
The United States has been reluctant to help the Iraqi government militarily as long as it is led by al-Maliki, a Shiite Islamist who is seen by many as exacerbating sectarian and ethnic tensions, alienating some Sunnis and driving them to join the militants.
Even many who are opposed to al-Maliki’s coalition appeared ready to accept someone else from inside it.
“Really at this point, I think it’s anybody but Maliki,” said a Kurdish politician who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Whether al-Maliki will accept someone else from his bloc in the top spot remains unclear.
“The risk is, if he clings to power, he will control the country by force,” said another senior Iraqi politician. “This would be a military coup.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Australia, warned that al-Maliki must back the constitutional process and not attempt to circumvent it by using his powers as commander in chief to stay in office. He said that any extralegal effort to cling to power would bring a cutoff of international aid.
“There should be no use of force,” Kerry said in remarks to reporters in Sydney, where he was meeting with government leaders, “no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq.”
“Iraq needs to finish its government formation process,” Kerry added. “And our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”
He said the Iraqi people wanted a peaceful transition of power.
If al-Maliki were to call on the Iraqi army to back his effort to stay in power, he could face resistance from one or several of the many militia groups that have close ties to political parties.
“We’re all worried about a coup d’état,” said Gen. Halgurd Hikmet, the chief spokesman for the Kurdish fighters in Iraq, known as peshmerga. “Maliki has to know that we have two major units of our troops guarding the Parliament and the Defense Ministry,” he said referring to the Kurdish division of the Iraqi army.
There are also forces loyal to the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who oppose al-Maliki and are numerous in Baghdad. And there are the fighters of the Badr Corps, who are technically part of the Iraqi army but remain closely tied to Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament with links to Iran. Whether Badr fighters back al-Maliki or move against him could help determine whether he survives in office.
It was not clear whether any of these militias would take action, but the potential for clashes is real, several people said.
A person close to Massoum, who is Kurdish, said the president had “taken his briefcase and gone to his office as usual” Monday. His presidential guard is on high alert, said a Kurdish leader who was in touch with the guard team, made up of Kurdish peshmerga.
“What Fouad Massoum is doing is trying to make things clear,” said Aram al-Sheikh Mohammed, a leader of Goran, one of the Kurdish parties in the Iraqi parliament. Although the army was “there in the Green Zone Sunday night, Fouad Massoum’s house was not surrounded” as some media outlets reported, he said.
“One thing all Iraqis need to know,” Kerry said Monday, “there will be little international support of any kind” if a decision on Iraq’s leadership “deviates from the legitimate constitution” and interrupts the government formation process.
Without military aid, the Iraqi government is unlikely to be able to reclaim territory from the Sunni militants, and may lose considerably more ground. The Islamic State group took the town of Jalawla and surrounding villages in northern Diyala province near the Kurdistan border late Sunday and were pushing east.
The recapture by the peshmerga of two towns near Irbil on Sunday, after US airstrikes there, put only a small dent in the militant advance, Hikmet said. Still, the events have heartened Kurdish fighters and civilians.
The Kurds have begun receiving weapons from outside sources, US officials said Monday. Although the United States was aware of the weapons deliveries, officials would not comment on the types of arms or on who was providing them.