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Tense standoff with Maliki as Iraq nominates new leader

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president 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 Maliki gave no signal he was willing to relinquish power.

The Obama administration, which has been pushing Iraqi lawmakers to name a replacement for Maliki, added to the pressure on him by welcoming the nomination of the candidate, Haider al-Abadi, a member of Maliki’s Shi’ite Islamist Dawa Party. President Obama congratulated Abadi in a televised statement.

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The nomination of Abadi came hours after a dramatic late-night television appearance in which a defiant 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 operations forces units loyal to 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 Maliki had taken further steps to use military force to guarantee his survival. In another speech broadcast Monday night, he insisted Abadi’s nomination ‘‘runs against the constitutional procedures’’ and he accused the United States of siding with political forces ‘‘who have violated the constitution.’’

‘‘Today, we are facing a grave constitutional breach and we have appealed and we have the proof that we are the largest bloc,’’ Maliki said. ‘‘We assure all the Iraqi people and the political groups that there is no importance or value to this nomination.’’

Maliki’s broadcasts, 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, 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, Maliki will remain as a caretaker leader and as commander in chief of Iraq’s security forces.

The Dawa Party, to which both Maliki and Abadi belong, has its roots in the clandestine political opposition to the Sunni Ba’athist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Like many of Iraq’s current leaders, 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 Maliki, a Shi’ite 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 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 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 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.”

“We’re all worried about a coup d’état,” said General 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 Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who oppose 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 Shi’ite member of the Iraqi Parliament with links to Iran.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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