Maliki says he'll step down in Iraq, easing fears of violent transition
Flanked by lawmakers from his Dawa party, Maliki said in a prerecorded speech that he would support the nomination of his longtime ally turned rival, Haider al-Abadi.
"I withdraw my nomination for the benefit of my brother, Dr. Haider al-Abadi, in the supreme interest of Iraq and its people," he said. "I will stay a soldier in the defense of Iraq."
He cemented his decision to step aside by dropping a legal complaint he had filed this week against Iraqi President Fouad Massoum, challenging Massoum's appointment of Abadi. Only Wednesday, Maliki had clung to that lawsuit in a fiery speech in which he gave no indication of backing down.
Maliki's departure from office was the second major piece of good news for the Obama administration on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, President Obama had declared that the U.S. military mission to protect members of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq, announced a week ago, had been a success.
The president said that an assessment team had found few Yazidis still in mountains where they had fled Islamic State forces two weeks ago, and that the United States was "unlikely" to continue airdrops of food and water. The majority of 129 advisers who arrived in Iraq this week to plan new ways to assist the Yazidis would depart Iraq, the president said.
U.S. officials have been pressing for Maliki to step down since insurgents from the Islamic State captured the city of Mosul June 10 and began a seemingly unstoppable push toward Baghdad. Administration officials have said since then that they would not agree to a broad-based program to assist in reversing Islamic State gains until a more inclusive government was in place. They openly blamed Maliki for mismanaging the country's army and alienating the Sunni Muslim minority from which the Islamic State draws its support.
National security adviser Susan Rice, in a statement issued by the White House, called Maliki's speech "another major step forward in uniting" Iraq and said it was one of a series of "encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State." But the statement made no mention of whether it would speed up the administration's consideration of broader military assistance to Iraq.
Maliki's announcement capped a seesaw week of political intrigue in which he gave two defiant speeches vowing to fight Abadi's nomination and consolidated a cadre of elite troops around the central Baghdad government complex known as the International Zone. The moves set off fears that he would use the military to keep his government.
On Thursday, Maliki insisted he never intended to use the military to carry out a coup.
"I excluded from the very beginning the choice of using force because of my belief that this choice will return Iraq back to the era of dictatorship and oppression," he said.
Praise from lawmakers
His decision to let go of his challenge drew praise from Iraqi lawmakers who have been trying to break a political impasse since April's inconclusive national elections. Maliki has been a caretaker prime minister since then.
"This is the right path for democracy and I hope the coming government will be built on abilities and competence, not anything else. This is a real start," said Hilal al-Sahlani, a Shiite lawmaker for a party affiliated with Maliki's.
Massoum's appointment of Abadi drew endorsements from the United States, Iran, Shiite militias that had fought against Maliki in the past, and most of Iraq's major political parties.
Whether Abadi will be able to unite the country against the Islamic State remains to be seen.
The disputes, however, are more than personal, and while Abadi is considered a friendlier personality and a more inclusive figure, he, like Maliki, has been a member of the conservative Shiite Dawa political party for years.
Dawa battled Saddam Hussein's Baath party for years, and like Maliki, Abadi spent much of that time in exile. The difference is that unlike Maliki, who lived those years in Iran, Abadi was exiled in Britain.
Still, there are early signs that he will face the same challenges. The General Political Council of Iraq Revolutionaries, an alliance of Sunni tribes opposed to Maliki, released a statement this week saying Abadi would not bring the real change they needed to put down their weapons.
By the time of his speech Thursday, Maliki had few allies left for his political fight.
His own party officially endorsed Abadi on Wednesday, citing a July letter party officials received from the Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that urged them to choose a new prime minister "who enjoys wide national acceptance and who can work together with the political leadership of other parties to save the country from the risks of terror, sectarianism and division."