Iraq swung Friday between conflicting emotions: relief that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s resignation had averted a destabilizing power struggle and uneasiness over the challenges facing the country’s new leader.
Maliki’s surprise announcement Thursday that he would give up his bid for a third four-year term raised hope that a new government could unite a country that is more bitterly divided than at perhaps any time since the sectarian civil strife of 2006-07.
Haider Abadi, the veteran Shiite Muslim lawmaker nominated to replace a leader widely seen as divisive, said Friday that the country faced “dangerous challenges,” an allusion to the extremist group Islamic State, which has overrun much of northern and western Iraq, prompting worldwide alarm and a U.S. military response.
“I will not give you unrealistic promises, but I promise you that I will do my best to serve our people and our homeland,” Abadi said in a message on his Facebook page.
But neither he nor the coalition of Shiite lawmakers who backed his nomination for Iraq’s top job have said what, if any, concessions he would make to minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Sunni leaders accuse Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and security forces of marginalizing members of their sect as well as carrying out unlawful abductions and other abuses. Those policies, they say, have fueled support for the Islamic State militants.
In addition, Kurds have been locked in a dispute with Baghdad over who gets to control oil revenue from their semiautonomous region in the north. That highly sensitive issue has prompted some Kurdish leaders to suggest that they could seek to create their own state.
Abadi, a former senior advisor to Maliki who hails from his Islamic Dawa Party, also must win over Shiites who turned on the outgoing leader for what they describe as corrupt and incompetent leadership, particularly on security matters. The weakness of Iraq’s U.S.-trained military was exposed when Islamic State fighters seized one of the country’s largest cities, Mosul, in June without a fight.
“Abadi says he wants to unite Iraqis under one flag to fight the terrorists. That is comforting to us,” said Ayman Mohammed, 19, a former Maliki supporter who works in an electronics shop in Baghdad.
Abadi, nominated to the prime minister's post Monday, has less than a month to form a Cabinet but has received the blessing of Iraq’s key power brokers. The country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose opposition sealed Maliki's downfall, endorsed Abadi’s government and called for national unity in his weekly sermon Friday.
In remarks delivered by a spokesman from the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Sistani noted that Abadi had received congratulations from the dueling regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the United States. The Obama administration praised Maliki’s decision to cede power peacefully as “important and honorable.”
“The regional and international welcome is a rare positive opportunity ... to solve all [Iraq's] problems, especially political and security ones,” Sistani said.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Air Force drone attacked two armed vehicles Friday that were reportedly attacking civilians in northern Iraq, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The airstrikes occurred after Kurdish troops informed the U.S that Sunni extremist fighters were attacking civilians in the village of Kawju, south of Mt. Sinjar, the statement said.
U.S. officials believe Baghdad stands little chance of regaining its lost territory unless the new government makes significant concessions to minorities, particularly Sunnis. The Islamic State’s advance through much of northern and western Iraq has been aided by alliances with Sunni groups, including tribesmen, ex-stalwarts of the late Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, military veterans and others.
Sunni leaders have described these as alliances of convenience formed out of mutual enmity for Maliki’s government. In Irbil, capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, representatives of Sunni tribal groups on Friday expressed conditional support for Abadi.
“We are fully prepared to cooperate with the incoming government, on the condition that the rights of Sunnis are respected,” said Ali Hatem Suleiman, who heads the powerful Dulaim tribe rooted in western Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency.
At a news conference in Irbil, Suleiman denounced the Islamic State militants but equated them with what he called the “terrorist” Iraqi military and Shiite militias that have provided crucial support for Iraq’s faltering armed forces. Suleiman did not specify what concessions Sunni activists would seek from the new government.
Some have questioned whether Sunni nationalist and tribal groups will be able to break with the militants. But Suleiman said, “Leave ISIS to us,” using the acronym for the group’s former moniker, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“Do not worry about ISIS,” he said. “We will fight them.”
In Baghdad, which had braced for chaos this month after Maliki sent loyalist troops into the streets in a show of force, many residents expressed relief.
“It was a good step by Maliki,” said Ayad Kadhim, 48, a government employee. “Since everyone had congratulated Abadi, it was a sign that he [Maliki] was not accepted by the majority of Iraqis. So I expect things to get better.”
Mansour Mall, the city’s toniest shopping center, was thronged with shoppers Friday afternoon on what store owners said was the busiest day in weeks. But inside a quiet men’s clothing store, clerk Anas Ghaib, 25, glumly described Maliki and the British-educated Abadi as “two faces of the same coin.”
“Abadi is smarter than Maliki and he can learn from his mistakes. He seems less confrontational,” Ghaib said. “But we liked Maliki in the beginning too.”
Bengali reported from Baghdad and McDonnell from Irbil. Staff writer David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
Aug. 15, 5:28 p.m.: This article was updated with information about new U.S. airstrikes.