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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Challenges facing new Iraqi PM

Published 15/08/2014 | 02:45

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Nouri Maliki finally gave up his post as Iraq's prime minister (AP)

The decision by Nouri Maliki to step down as Iraq's prime minister has brought celebrations from his opponents.

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Meanwhile the country's top Shiite cleric urged his successor to carry out dramatic reforms so the new government can take on Sunni insurgents who have overrun large parts of the country.

The man tapped to become the next prime minister, Haider Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians as he cobbles together a cabinet in just over three weeks.

Mr Abadi said his government will be based on "efficiency and integrity, to salvage the country from security, political and economic problems" - but that is easier said than done in a country where forming a government often falls victim to roadblocks and infighting.

Iraq's major factions deeply distrust each other. Sunni politicians are pressing for greater political influence, saying their disenfranchisement under Mr Maliki's Shiite-dominated government fuelled support among the Sunni minority for the insurgency, led by the extremist Islamic State group. At the same time, the military needs significant bolstering after falling apart in the face of the militants' advance and proving incapable of taking back lost territory.

"Sunnis and Kurds were present in the Maliki government, but rarely included in the key decision-making process," said retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmett, former military spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq. "One hopes that al-Abadi understands that inclusion has to be more than mere participation."

Many Iraqis expressed a sense of relief that Mr Maliki had relented after weeks of insisting on a third four-year term, fuelling a political crisis that raised fears of a coup in a country with a long history of violent power grabs.

During Friday prayers in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district, a man distributed sweets to Shiite worshippers, proclaiming, "Saddam has been brought down".

The comparison of Mr Maliki to the late dictator Saddam Hussein showed the depth of opposition to the outgoing prime minister even among some of his fellow Shiites.

Sadr City is dominated by followers of powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of Mr Maliki's harshest critics. Six years ago, Mr Maliki sent security forces to battle Mr Sadr's militias to establish his authority and project his image as a national leader.

"We congratulate the Iraqi people for the victory that has been done this week. It is the week of congratulations," said Ali Talaqani, a preacher loyal to Mr Sadr, in his sermon to Sadr City worshippers.

Shiite factions turned against Mr Maliki largely because they saw him as a domineering leader who monopolised power and allowed widespread corruption. Critics say he staffed the military's officer corps with incompetent loyalists, playing a major role in the army's collapse in the face of the Islamic State militants over the past two months.

Sunni factions also accused him of widespread corruption. But they also said his government sidelined their community, and were angered by his crackdown on Sunni protests and arrests of Sunni politicians.

The Kurds, meanwhile, had been locked in a long-standing dispute with Baghdad over oil revenues from their largely autonomous region in the north, which prompted Baghdad to slash the annual budget to the region earlier this year, stoking calls by the ethnic minority for independence from the rest of Iraq.

The advance of the Islamic militants toward the Kurdish regional capital Irbil forced the two governments to set their differences aside, but long-standing conflicts over land and oil remain.

"Issues between Irbil and Baghdad over oil revenues haven't disappeared - they're just in the background for now," said Austin Long, a member of the Arnold A Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

"Government formation has never been easy in Iraq," he added. "Al-Abadi has to consider that Irbil maybe wants some things that Baghdad may not be ready to give."

Today, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called upon the next government to address "shortcomings" in security and to crack down on corruption in the political establishment. The reclusive leader said in a sermon delivered by his spokesman that there is a "dire need" for new leadership that can combat terrorism and heal sectarian divisions.

Ayatollah Sistani, who rarely appears in public and almost always delivers messages through spokesmen, had been issuing veiled calls for Mr Maliki to step aside for weeks, marking a rare intervention in politics by the normally quietist cleric.

Mr Maliki announced on national television yesterday evening he was giving up his post and throwing his support to Mr Abadi. He stood along senior members of his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, including Mr Abadi.

Mr Maliki, who had held the post since 2006, said he was stepping aside in order to "facilitate the political process and government formation".

The prime minister had been growing increasingly isolated as he struggled to keep his post. The United States, the UN, and perhaps his most important ally Iran were in agreement that he should go.

The White House commended Mr Maliki's move and expressed hope that the transfer of power "can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people" against the threat from Islamic militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.

US secretary of state John Kerry said the move "sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq".

The UN Security Council urged Mr Abadi to work swiftly to form "an inclusive government" that could address the country's challenges.

The Islamic State group's lightning advance has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and last week prompted the US to launch aid operations and airstrikes as the militants threatened religious minorities and the Kurdish region.

The European Union's 28 foreign ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels today agreed to permit the delivery of arms and military equipment to the Kurds, provided it is done in concert with Iraq's central government.

France has pledged to ship weapons to the Kurds, while Britain is delivering ammunition and military supplies obtained from eastern European nations and is considering sending more weaponry. Germany, the Netherlands and others said they would also consider requests to arm the Kurds.

Press Association

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