BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, seems to have the backing of nearly every major political alliance in the country, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to take office as long as the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, holds the keys to power in the Iraqi capital.
Al-Maliki made that point clear Wednesday in a televised address in which he once again declared his intent to fight to keep his post.
This time, he announced that al-Abadi’s appointment to succeed him had “no value.” Al-Maliki also warned that chaos might follow if Iraq’s federal court doesn’t side with him in interpreting Iraq’s Constitution in his favor.
“This government will continue,” al-Maliki said, until a court orders him to step down.
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His latest defiant speech came after a string of international endorsements for al-Abadi, whom Iraqi President Fouad Massoum selected Monday to be the next prime minister. Al-Abadi has a month to form a new government. He’s indicated that he wants to find an office for al-Maliki.
Al-Abadi’s selection garnered praise from U.S., Iranian and Persian Gulf representatives, who view al-Maliki as an obstacle to forming a unified Iraqi government that can battle Islamic State fighters and undercut their support among factions that have felt besieged by Iraq’s security forces during eight years of al-Maliki’s rule.
In Iraq, political leaders share the same hopes for al-Abadi. They view him as similar to al-Maliki in that he hails from the Shiite Muslim-based Dawa Party — the largest single Shiite political bloc — but he advocates a more inclusive approach to governing that will be vital to settling grievances among disaffected Sunni Muslims and long-standing disagreements with the Kurds.
“This guy is going to gather Iraqis and take them out of this crisis,” said Ahmed al-Masari, a Sunni lawmaker who served with al-Abadi in the parliament.
But it’s far from a done deal that al-Abadi will be able to assemble a government.
Al-Maliki, the commander in chief, still has control over the armed forces and has consolidated his elite troops around the government complex known as the International Zone. On Wednesday, troops shut down main roads in central Baghdad while pro-al-Maliki demonstrators held a small rally in Firdos Square.
In his speech, al-Maliki said he was challenging al-Abadi’s appointment to protect the rights of voters.
Al-Abadi, a British-educated engineer, was born in Baghdad in 1952 and joined the Dawa Party as a teenager. He spent decades in the United Kingdom while the Dawa Party was at odds with Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.
He’s had a role in Iraq’s government since the U.S. military and its allies toppled Saddam in 2003.
“The perception of those who do know him is he is much smarter than Maliki, more conciliatory, and that will serve him well,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a research center in London, who follows Iraq issues.
Al-Abadi has been a face of the Dawa Party throughout al-Maliki’s two terms, serving as party spokesman and speaking for al-Maliki in contentious moments. One party member once called him al-Maliki’s “parrot.”
Now, however, some members of the party and a majority of other Shiite parties once aligned with al-Maliki think it’s time for a new face to lead the government.
“This situation requires a nominee who is accepted by most of Iraq,” said Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a Dawa Party member who’s a former member of parliament. “He is one of the best leaders suggested, and he is acceptable by most Iraqi political blocs.”
If he can form a government, al-Abadi will face the same challenges that have dogged al-Maliki’s regime. Al-Masari wants al-Abadi to better share resources with Sunni provinces and to address complaints that al-Maliki’s military has unfairly targeted Sunnis.
Kurdish leaders in the north released cautious statements about al-Abadi. They’re glad the Shiite parties chose someone other than al-Maliki to lead the country, but they’re concerned that al-Abadi won’t resolve perennial disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil over sharing revenue from oil sales.
The Kurdish and Sunni grievances are difficult challenges that have remained unsettled since the U.S.-led invasion.
Officials hope that a change of face could navigate them, even though al-Maliki and al-Abadi share similar backgrounds and views.
But before al-Abadi can get started, he has to win parliament’s approval for his Cabinet choices and settle al-Maliki’s legal complaint against his appointment.
Al-Maliki filed the complaint with Iraq’s supreme court earlier this week, alleging that President Massoum subverted the constitutional process by delaying a choice for prime minister. Al-Maliki also argued that his State of Law coalition, a Shiite group that includes the Dawa Party, should have the first choice for prime minister instead of the broader alliance that selected al-Abadi.
Abdul Sattar al-Deroqdar, the court’s spokesman, said judges would take their time making their decision.
“It’s too early to call it,” al-Khoei said. “Don’t rule (Maliki) out. He’s a survivor.”