The political deadlock that plunged Iraq into uncertainty amid a bloody Sunni militant uprising has finally ended after embattled prime minister Nouri Maliki relinquished his post to his nominated replacement.
Standing alongside senior members of his party, including rival Haider Abadi, Mr Maliki said last night he was stepping aside in favour of his “brother”, in order to “facilitate the political process and government formation”.
Mr Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolising power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that has alienated the Sunni minority.
The United States, the United Nations and an array of political factions in Iraq had backed Mr Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from Sunni extremists of the Islamic State (IS) group that has captured large swathes of Iraqi territory.
Mr Maliki said his decision to throw his support behind Mr Abadi reflected a desire to “safeguard the high interests of the country”, adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed.
“My position is your trust in me, and no position is higher than your trust,” he declared in a televised address.
Mr Maliki’s refusal to give up his position after eight years in power had provoked a political crisis that escalated this week in Baghdad, where armed guards patrolled most major bridges, junctions and roadways.
The pressure intensified when his Shiite political alliance backed Mr Abadi to replace him and President Fouad Massoum nominated Mr Abadi on Monday to form the next government.
Mr Maliki refused to step aside, threatening legal action against the president for what he said was a violation of the constitution. But at a meeting of his party yesterday, Mr Maliki agreed to endorse Mr Abadi as the next prime minister, two senior MPs from his State of Law parliamentary bloc, Hussein Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad, said.
They said he also agreed to drop a suit before the constitutional court challenging Mr Abadi’s nomination.
The White House commended Mr Maliki for his decision and expressed hope that the power shift “can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people” against the threat from Islamic militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said.
US secretary of state John Kerry called it an “important and honourable decision”, adding that America was ready to partner with a new Iraqi government to counter the IS threat “and we will encourage other countries in the region and international community to do the same”.
United Nations special representative for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov also welcomed the move, saying it “demonstrates statesmanship and a commitment to the democratic process and the constitution”.
Mr Maliki had grown increasingly isolated as he was deserted not only by his Shiite allies but also top ally Iran, the United States and the UN-backed Mr Abadi, who has 30 days to put together a cabinet for parliament’s approval.
The UN Security Council urged him to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges”.
Iraqis of all sects welcomed yesterday’s announcement.
“Now all we want is a government that respects the people and does not discriminate against them,” said Youssef Ibrahim, 40, a Sunni government employee in Baghdad.
Adnan Hussein, 45, a Shiite in Sadr City, said he believed Mr Maliki stepped down “because he came under enormous pressure and threat from inside and outside Iraq”.
“The years he ruled were the worst in Iraq’s history and he bears that responsibility,” he said.
The US and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that will ease anger among Sunnis, who felt marginalised by Mr Maliki’s administration, helping fuel the dramatic sweep by the Islamic State extremist group that has seized large areas of territory in northern and western Iraq since June.
Widespread discontent with Mr Maliki’s rule has reached the point where both Saudi Arabia and Iran – regional rivals often bitterly divided over Iraq – have expressed support for Mr Abadi. The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have also offered support for new leadership.
Mr Maliki “defamed his image by threatening to use force or to complain to the federal court”, said Aziz Jaber, a professor of political science at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University.
“The main reason Maliki was forced to accept this new reality is the stance of the Marjayah (Iraq’s elite Shiite clerics) and the rare agreement of Iran and Saudi Arabia that he should leave.”
The extremist Islamic State group’s lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and last week prompted the US to launch aid operations and air strikes as the militants threatened religious minorities and the largely autonomous Kurdish region.
The UN declared the situation in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” – a development that will allow for additional assets to respond to the needs of the displaced.
Its decision came after some 45,000 people, members of the Yazidi religious minority, were able to escape from a remote desert mountaintop where they had been encircled by Islamic State fighters, who view them as apostates and had vowed to kill any who did not convert to Islam.
The UN said it would provide increased support to the Yazidis and to 400,000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. A total of 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
French president Francois Hollande confirmed the “imminent delivery of military equipment” to Kurdish forces in a phone call with President Massoum. Mr Hollande’s office did not specify the type or amount of equipment.