Iraq’s PM-designate gets crucial boost from Iranian backing

Message of support from Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes it harder for Nouri Al Maliki to block rise of Haider Al Abadi.

The Iraqi Shiite militia, Kataib Hizbollah, patrols the outskirts of Hibhib in north-east Iraq. Moves to replace the divisive Shiite prime minister Nouri Al Maliki have raised hopes of averting a sectarian war in Iraq. EPA / August 11, 2014
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TEHRAN // Iran officially ended its long-time allegiance to Iraq’s sidelined prime minister Nouri Al Maliki on Tuesday, swinging its support behind newly designated premier Haidar Al Abadi in a congratulatory message.

The statement confirmed that Mr Al Maliki had lost the crucial backing of fellow Shiite leaders and politicians in Tehran, making it much harder to credibly fight on and remain head of government in Baghdad.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary and representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, made the announcement in Tehran.

“We congratulate Haidar Al Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population and its political groups,” Mr Shamkhani said, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Mr Shamkhani had earlier been quoted as saying that Iran backed the legal process which led to Mr Al Maliki being replaced, following the nomination of Mr Al Abadi as premier.

But congratulating Mr Al Abadi was a step further and signalled that Tehran was no longer willing to fight in Mr Al Maliki’s corner.

“The framework provided by the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the prime minister has been chosen by the majority group in the parliament,” Mr Shamkhani said in the Iranian capital.

Iran was influential in ensuring that Mr Al Maliki retained the post of prime minister and served a second term following Iraq’s inconclusive general election in 2010.

Although he won the largest number of seats in this year’s April elections, the country’s politics have been overshadowed by a Islamist militant surge in the north, which he has failed to quell.

On Monday, Iraq’s president Fuad Masum tasked Mr Al Abadi, who was deputy speaker in parliament, with forming a new government in a move angrily denounced by Mr Al Maliki who wanted a third term.

Iran’s Mr Shamkhani called on “all groups and coalitions in Iraq to protect the national interest,” taking into account the need to “deal with external threats”.

Iran has expressed support for Mr Al Maliki throughout the battle against Islamic State militants, but always said it would back the Baghdad parliament’s choice of prime minister.

The calls for unity have long been interpreted as indicating that key figures in Tehran thought Mr Al Maliki had failed to keep a handle on Iraq’s delicate religious balance of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and other sects.

Long accused of running a sectarian government, Mr Al Maliki may also have lost Tehran’s support because his military forces wilted in the face of then relatively lightly-armed Islamic State militants months ago.

As border nations with deep religious and political ties, Iran moved to help Mr Al Maliki by sending military advisers to Baghdad within days of the militant push that saw the Iraqi army collapse when many units opted to put down their weapons and desert rather than stand and fight.

More than two months after its initial surge, the Islamic State, which boasts of its desire to kill Shiites, still controls large parts of Iraq, including areas close to the Iranian border.

On Tuesday, Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi also backed the nomination of Mr Al Abadi, joining an international chorus of approval for the sidelining of Mr Al Maliki.

Mr Al Arabi “welcomed Iraqi president Fuad Masum’s tasking of Haidar Al Abadi to form a new government,” a statement said.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey also announced their support for Mr Al Abadi.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal said the nomination of Mr Al Abadi was “happy news”.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the step was “positive and important”.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Maliki ordered Iraq’s security forces to stay out of a “political crisis” over who will form the next government, amid fears they could intervene.

He urged security personnel “to stay away from the political crisis and continue in their security and military duties to defend the country”.Mr Al Maliki is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

UN Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov on Monday warned Iraq’s military against political interference, after special forces, police and soldiers deployed around strategic installations in Baghdad.

* Agence France-Presse