BAGHDAD (MCT) — Iraq swung Friday between conflicting emotions: relief that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation had averted a destabilizing power struggle and a cold reckoning of the challenges facing the country’s new leader.
Al-Maliki’s surprise announcement Thursday that he would give up his bid for a third four-year term raised hopes that a new government could unite a country that is more bitterly divided than at perhaps any time since the bloody sectarian civil strife of 2006-07.
Haider al-Abadi, the veteran Shiite Muslim lawmaker nominated to replace a leader widely seen as divisive, said Friday that the country faced “dangerous challenges” — an allusion to the Islamic State extremist group that has overrun much of northern and western Iraq, prompting worldwide alarm and a U.S. military response.
“I will not give you unrealistic promises, but I promise you that I will do my best to serve our people and our homeland,” al-Abadi said in a message on his Facebook page.
But neither al-Abadi nor the coalition of Shiite lawmakers who backed his nomination for Iraq’s top job have said what, if any, concessions he would make to minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Sunni leaders accuse al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and security forces of marginalizing members of their sect as well as carrying out unlawful abductions and other abuses. Those policies, they say, have fueled support for the Islamic State militants.
In addition, Kurds have been locked in a dispute with Baghdad over who gets to control oil revenue from their semiautonomous region in the north. That highly sensitive issue has prompted some Kurdish leaders to suggest that they could seek to create their own state.
Al-Abadi, a former senior adviser to al-Maliki who hails from the same Islamic Dawa party, also must win over Shiites who turned on the outgoing leader for what they describe as corrupt and incompetent leadership, particularly on security matters. The weakness of Iraq’s U.S.-trained military was exposed when Islamic State fighters seized one of the country’s largest cities, Mosul, in June without a fight.
“Abadi says he wants to unite Iraqis under one flag to fight the terrorists. That is comforting to us,” said Ayman Mohammed, a 19-year-old former al-Maliki supporter who works in an electronics shop in Baghdad.
Al-Abadi, nominated to the prime minister’s post Monday, has less than a month to form a Cabinet but has received the blessing of Iraq’s key power brokers. The country’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose opposition sealed al-Maliki’s downfall, endorsed al-Abadi’s government and called for national unity in his weekly sermon Friday.
In remarks delivered by a spokesman from the Shiite holy city of Karbala, al-Sistani noted that al-Abadi had received congratulations from the dueling regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as of the United States. The Obama administration praised al-Maliki’s decision to cede power peacefully as “important and honorable.”
“The regional and international welcome is a rare positive opportunity … to solve all (Iraq’s) problems, especially political and security ones,” al-Sistani said.
U.S. officials believe Baghdad stands little chance of regaining its lost territory unless the new government makes significant concessions to minorities, particularly Sunnis. The Islamic State advance through much of northern and western Iraq has been aided by alliances with Sunni groups, including tribesmen, ex-stalwarts of the late Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, military veterans and others.
Sunni leaders have described these as alliances of convenience formed out of mutual enmity for al-Maliki’s government. In Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, representatives of Sunni tribal groups on Friday expressed conditional support for al-Abadi.
“We are fully prepared to cooperate with the incoming government, on the condition that the rights of Sunnis are respected,” said Ali Hatem Suleiman, who heads the powerful Dulaim tribe rooted in western Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency.
At a news conference in Irbil, Suleiman denounced the Islamic State militants but equated them with what he called the “terrorist” Iraqi military and Shiite militias that have provided crucial support for Iraq’s faltering armed forces. Suleiman did not specify what concessions Sunni activists would seek from the new government.
Some have questioned whether Sunni nationalist and tribal groups will be able to break with the militants. However, Suleiman said, “Leave ISIS to us,” using the acronym for the group’s former moniker, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“Do not worry about ISIS,” he said. “We will fight them.”
–Shashank Bengali and Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times
(Bengali reported from Baghdad and McDonnell from Irbil.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services.