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Maliki loses key support in his bid to keep power in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s defiant fight to retain power in Iraq appeared to collapse Tuesday, after his former backers in Iran, the military, and his own party all signaled that he could no longer expect their support.

He issued a statement saying that the security forces, which he had deployed around the capital on Monday in what some took to be preparations for a coup, should stay out of politics. And the conversation in Baghdad shifted to how he would leave office and on what terms.

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The shift came after Maliki made several last-ditch efforts to shore up support, only to be confronted late Monday night with delegations of officials, all pleading with him to back down for the good of the country.

The next morning, an important Iraqi army general in Baghdad reached out to Iraq’s new president, Fuad Masum, and the man he nominated to be the next prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and delivered the message that the military would not stand by Maliki, according to a senior Iraqi official.

Hours later, Maliki’s office released a statement that reflected both the growing opposition to him and the reality that the military probably would not back him anyway, if he tried to mount a coup: “Prime Minister Maliki urges commanders, officers and individuals to stay away from the political crisis and to commit to their military and security duties and tasks to protect the country, and not to intervene in this crisis. Leave this issue to the people, politicians and justice.”

Iran, a longtime supporter of Maliki, also lent its weight Tuesday to the constitutional process of replacing him with Abadi, adding pressure on Maliki to retreat from his threats. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, congratulated Abadi during a meeting of Iranian ambassadors, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry also voiced its support for Abadi, saying in a statement, according to the Tasnim News Agency, “The Islamic Republic of Iran supports all the steps taken in line with completing the political process in Iraq.”

Persuasion

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Some Iraqis said privately that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s influential Shi’ite cleric, also played an important role in orchestrating Maliki’s retreat, dispatching emissaries to Iran and successfully seeking the government’s cooperation in pressuring Maliki. Sistani was known to have been increasingly vexed over the political paralysis in Baghdad as militants with the Islamic State group were gaining ground.

The Obama administration, which has deployed US warplanes to help the Iraqi government battle a marauding force of Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq, has been pressing Maliki to move aside.

President Obama and his top aide congratulated Abadi on Monday and exhorted him to quickly form an inclusive government that would depart from Maliki’s polarizing policies, which have alienated many in the Sunni and Kurd minorities.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the United States would consider expanding military and political support for Iraq if Abadi assumed the duties of prime minister and formed a more inclusive government.

With so many forces now arrayed against Maliki, the discussion Tuesday turned to what are believed to be his demands in return for stepping down: assurances that he will not be prosecuted and that his physical safety will be safeguarded.

According to senior lawmakers, discussions have centered on offering Maliki the position of vice president, a ceremonial post that would come with immunities and a security detail and would allow him to remain in palatial government housing inside the fortified Green Zone.

As an alternative, Iraqi officials have also begun quietly raising the question of whether Maliki should leave the country, and where he might go, according to a senior official.

Abadi, a lawmaker from Maliki’s own Shi’ite Islamist Dawa Party, moved to mollify Maliki on Monday, urging him to join the process of government formation.

However, Abadi pointedly referred to Maliki as the “outgoing” prime minister, even though Maliki remains Iraq’s leader, and commander in chief, until Abadi forms a new government. He has 30 days to do so under the constitution.

In a statement, Abadi said that Maliki was “a brother and companion and he will remain so.”

“He is a central partner in politics in Iraq,” he continued.

Abadi also praised the security forces, which was seen as an effort by him to reassure military officers who may believe they owe their positions to Maliki and are worried about losing their jobs.

The quickly shifting messages — from a possible military coup one day, followed by late-night meetings and subtle public statements that carry deeper meanings the next — were particularly emblematic of Iraqi political gamesmanship.

“This is how it works in Iraq,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The message from -Abadi to Maliki was, he said, “exactly what you’d expect: He’s reassuring Maliki, ‘I will not throw you to the wolves.’ ”

One Shi’ite leader, who spoke anonymously about the negotiations, said Maliki was “calm now and realizes that all his friends left him and joined the other camp.”

“If Maliki accepts backing Abadi,” he added, “and wants to be part of the team that forms the government, this will be his way to save face and keep his prestige as a top Shi’ite leader.”

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