Nouri al-Maliki's sudden decision to step down as Iraq's prime minister should keep the fractured country from tearing further apart. The question now is whether his successor will be able to knit it back together.
Just four days after deploying loyalist troops around Baghdad and signaling that he was prepared to use force to hold onto his premiership, Maliki used an unscheduled appearance on Iraqi state-run television Thursday to announce that he was resigning from the post and handing the reins of power to Haider al-Abadi, the moderate Shiite whom Iraq's president has picked to form a new government. Abadi has 26 days to do so, and officials from the United States and across the Middle East will be watching closely to see if the new premier gives key security posts to Sunni leaders as part of a broader outreach effort to the minority group.
"I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi," Maliki said.
Maliki's resignation came after the controversial leader lost the support of the United States and Tehran, his two biggest foreign patrons, and the Shiite clerics, politicians, and military leaders who had been his strongest domestic allies. On Monday, President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation to give a short speech congratulating Abadi on his appointment as prime minister-designate while pointedly not mentioning Maliki's name a single time. On Tuesday, a key Iranian leader with close ties to the country's ruling clerics gave Abadi a similar endorsement. Inside Iraq, meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric, urged Maliki to step aside, a call backed by growing numbers within the prime minister's own political bloc. Faced with the reality that he could only try to hold onto power through force, Maliki resigned.
The move means that Iraq's future is now in the hands of Abadi, a Western-educated engineer who moved to Britain in the late 1970s and became a fierce critic of Saddam Hussein. In the early 1980s, the strongman executed two of Abadi's brothers and sentenced a third to 10 years in prison. Abadi's father, once a prominent Baghdad doctor, joined him in exile in England and died there in 1983. On Abadi's Facebook page, he bitterly notes that his father was buried in London because the Hussein regime wouldn't allow political "opponents to bury their dead in their own country."
Abadi, a member of the British branch of Maliki's Dawa party, returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein in 2003 and has since held a succession of political posts. He currently serves as the deputy speaker of Iraq's parliament, a post that has forced him to work closely with lawmakers from Iraq's embattled Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
The strength of those relationships is likely to determine whether Abadi can cobble together a unity government capable of persuading leading Sunnis to cooperate in the fight against militants from the Islamic State, which has conquered broad swaths of central and northern Iraq. The Obama administration, which hailed Maliki's decision to step down, has promised to increase its financial and military assistance to Iraq if Abadi's new government has less of a sectarian bent than Maliki's hard-line Shiite-dominated one.
Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official, said Abadi will take office with widespread goodwill within the Sunni and Kurdish communities simply because he is not Maliki, who was reviled for instituting policies that discriminated against both groups. But Kahl said Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be looking to Abadi to quickly make substantive moves that show he is genuinely willing to share power. A key early test: whether Abadi puts Sunnis in control of the powerful ministries of defense and interior, which control the country's military and police forces. Sunnis have wanted those posts for years to ensure that Iraqi security forces aren't used against them the way they were under Maliki.
"A lot will depend on the initial steps right out of the gate. Who's his minister of defense? Of interior? How much autonomy will he be willing to give Sunni areas of the country?" Kahl said. "He'll have a honeymoon period and an opportunity to turn the page, but it's not inevitable that he'll take it."
Still, Kahl said that Maliki's resignation, and Abadi's pending ascension, was the best news out of Iraq "in a long, long time."
"A couple of days ago, Maliki was making all sorts of noise about legal challenges and threatening a self-coup by deploying security forces across Baghdad," Kahl said. "Now he's stepping aside for a new government that will be better than the one we currently have."
Amer al-Saedi/AFP/Getty Images