The Obama administration is welcoming the nomination of a new Iraqi prime minister while doing all it can to ease the current one out the door. With Nouri al-Maliki showing no signs of leaving, however, the White House will soon need to decide how hard it's willing to push.
On a day of high drama and deep uncertainty for both Baghdad and Washington, Iraqi President Fouad Massoum tapped Haider al-Abadi, a prominent Shiite politician who serves as the deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament, as the country's prime minister-designate. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called Abadi to congratulate him and urge him to quickly form a new government of national unity. Obama said the United States was prepared to ramp up its military support for the battered Iraqi military if Abadi struck power-sharing deals with the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
"The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government, one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis and one that can unify the country's fight against ISIL," Obama said Monday, using an acronym for the militant group that has conquered broad swaths of Iraq and Syria. "Today Iraq took a promising step forward."
Obama didn't mention Maliki's name a single time during his brief public remarks, a clear sign of how desperately the White House wants to turn the page on the hard-line Shiite politician's tenure as Iraq's leader. U.S. officials accuse Maliki of pursuing nakedly sectarian policies that have persuaded many Sunnis to cast their lot with the militants who call themselves the Islamic State.
Maliki, however, has rejected calls to step aside and has taken steps this week that raise the dark prospect of a coup. On Sunday night, Maliki accused Massoum of violating the Iraqi constitution by trying to replace him. A short time later, tanks and soldiers from Iraqi units under Maliki's direct command surrounded Baghdad's Green Zone and set up checkpoints across Baghdad, raising fears that Maliki would use force to either intimidate Iraqi lawmakers into giving him a third term in power or dissolve Iraq's parliament altogether.
The moves drew a stern rebuke from Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned Maliki against using Iraq's military for political purposes and said that any use of force would lead Washington and its allies to cut off their aid to Iraq.
"One thing all Iraqis need to know, that there will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitutional process that is in place and being worked on now," he said.
Still, it's far from clear that the United States has enough leverage to force Maliki to give up power if the Iraqi leader refuses to do so peacefully.
"I don't know if there's anyone in the United States who he listens to anymore," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the embattled prime minister. "Everyone admits that the Iranians have more leverage than the United States."
While Washington could threaten to call back the roughly 800 U.S. military advisers in the country and withhold future weapons sales to Iraq, such moves would make it even harder for Baghdad to retake the territory it has lost to militants from the Islamic State or prevent them from advancing further north. As long as the Islamic State remains a threat, Cook said Washington will be reluctant to withdraw military support from Iraq despite its anger at Maliki.
The White House is "not ready just yet to punish ourselves by punishing the Iraqis," he said.
Douglas Ollivant, who formerly served as the top Iraq policy official on the National Security Council, said there was "very little" the United States could do to push Maliki out of power, but he said he didn't think the Iraqi leader would resort to violence to stay in office.
"I really think it's all done but the shouting," Ollivant said. "He's going to talk tough and play out his last legal card, but he doesn't want to be an international pariah. If we pull away, his only friends would be Iran and Syria, and even Maliki doesn't want that."
If Maliki does eventually step aside, the White House will face a new set of tough questions about the way forward in Iraq. Obama has consistently said the United States would be willing to ramp up its military support for Baghdad once Maliki is out of power and a new national unity government has taken over, but the president has ruled out the use of American combat forces and been deliberately vague about the type of air campaign he would consider undertaking. Once Abadi takes charge, however, Obama will have to choose just how far he will actually be willing to go.