Iraqis carry portraits of incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as they gather in support of him in Baghdad today.
By Loveday Morris / The Washington Post
BAGHDAD — Iran endorsed Iraq’s new prime minister-designate on Tuesday, dealing a devastating blow to Nouri al-Maliki as even the incumbent’s most loyal militia turned its back on him.
After eight years in office, Mr. Maliki has refused to step aside as Iraq’s prime minister, vowing to fight the nomination Monday of Haider al-Abadi to form a new government. But he was left with nowhere to turn for support Tuesday, as he lost the backing of Tehran, which wields significant influence over Iraqi politics. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia that has supported Maliki in the past, also said it supported the decision of Iraq’s Shiite politicians to nominate Mr. Abadi.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, congratulated Mr. Abadi, Iraq’s religious leaders and political parties on the appointment, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
There have been concerns that Mr. Maliki could exploit his influence over the armed forces, and Iraq’s militias, to complicate a handover. At the first signs of a move against him, he deployed special forces troops that answer directly to the prime minister’s office to strategic points across the city.
Appearing in a televised meeting Tuesday with Iraq’s top military commanders, Mr. Maliki told security forces not to intervene in the current political crisis but to protect the nation. He warned them to beware of groups that might want to act to defend him, adding that such actions were “forbidden.”
But Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which receives funding from Iran and whose fighters are battling on the front lines against Sunni extremists from the Islamic State insurgency, indicated that it is unlikely to fight for Mr. Maliki’s continued tenure. “We are 100 percent with the National Alliance,” said Naim al-Abboudi, a political spokesman for the group.
On Monday, the National Alliance, a parliamentary grouping of Shiite politicians, submitted a letter to Iraqi President Fouad Massoum naming Mr. Abadi as its nominee for prime minister. Mr. Massoum then formally asked Mr. Abadi, 62, to form a new government in defiance of Mr. Maliki, who argued that the appointment was legally invalid.
The clash has raised deep concerns at home and abroad about Iraq’s teetering stability. Ominously, Mr. Maliki reminded the country in a televised address Monday of his position as head of the armed forces and assured soldiers that the “error” would be rectified.
Blue-and-white armored personnel carriers belonging to security forces that answer directly to Mr. Maliki were stationed around the Green Zone on Monday. A hulking tank sat at one of the entrances to the secured zone, which houses government buildings. The armed forces remained on high alert, officials said, though Saad Maan, a Baghdad Operations Command spokesman, maintained that the deployment was routine.
“We are entering a potential clash,” said an Iraqi official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. “On the ground, [there are] tanks and armored vehicles. It’s a very complicated situation with the army.”
In a sign of U.S. concern, President Barack Obama on Monday publicly announced his backing for Mr. Abadi, saying his nomination was “a promising step forward.” Both he and Vice President Joe Biden called Mr. Abadi to express their support.
Mr. Abadi now has 30 days to form a government, with Mr. Maliki staying on as caretaker prime minister during the interval.
The U.S. government has said it will significantly expand aid to Iraq in its battle with al-Qaida-inspired militants only if it forms a government that embraces the country’s different religious and ethnic groups. “The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government,” Mr. Obama told reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing.
In his eight years as premier, Mr. Maliki has consolidated power in his office, ruling in an authoritarian style that has chipped away at his support among minority Sunnis, as well as his fellow Shiites. He is widely blamed for fostering an environment that has allowed Sunni extremists from the Islamic State to seize control of huge chunks of Iraqi territory.
But in the face of a chorus of calls for him to leave — from the country’s religious authorities, his political rivals and even members of his own bloc — Mr. Maliki has stubbornly refused. He has maintained that since his bloc won the most seats in parliament in national elections this spring, he should be the one leading the next government.
Hours after Mr. Massoum asked Mr. Abadi to form a government, the enraged outgoing premier made a televised address lambasting the move and declaring that he personified the governing State of Law coalition. “I am Nouri al-Maliki, and I am the head of State of Law, and I am the head of Dawa [party], and no one has the right to deal under our name without my approval,” he said.
But his State of Law coalition has crumbled, with 38 of its 96 parliamentarians signing a letter to the president declaring their support for Mr. Abadi. They were among 127 Shiite politicians who supported Mr. Abadi’s bid in the 328-seat parliament. Mr. Abadi will probably be able to form a majority with support from Kurdish and Sunni factions, analysts said.
Indeed, a late-night show of force Sunday by Mr. Maliki appeared to have galvanized efforts to oust him. “It has backfired and was unwise,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who served as foreign minister in the Maliki government. “We have passed the stage of military coups and taking power by force.”
The army indicated Monday that its loyalties do not lie with Mr. Maliki. “We are the army of Iraq, not of Maliki,” the armed forces said on its official Twitter account. “We will continue to fulfill our promises, and for our nation, we shall be defenders.” But Iraq’s security forces are fragmented and in disarray after a partial collapse of the army in June.