Up until yesterday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had no intentions of retiring. Even after President Fuad Masum hand-selected Haider al-Abadi to replace him (a selection fully within his legal authority), Maliki filed a claim in the country's court system contending that the maneuver was improper and illegal. Tensions flared for days as the newly elected president and the old guard quibbled over political control of the government. This threatened the future and stability of Iraq. In the end, however, Maliki bowed to international and inside pressure:
Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged unity on Friday after Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step down as prime minister, reviving hopes for a new government that can take on Sunni insurgents who have overrun large parts of the country.
Al-Maliki announced he was giving up his post on national television late Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, including his rival and premier-designate Haider al-Abadi.
The move paves the way for the country's first democratic transfer of power since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011 and comes amid widespread calls for a more inclusive government that can reach out to Sunnis and Kurds and stitch the country back together.
It’s no secret that the current administration was hoping for this outcome. ISIS and the humanitarian crisis aside, a protracted political impasse followed perhaps by a coup would have made matters in Iraq exceedingly worse than they already are. Hence why the president’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, hailed Maliki’s impending resignation as a “major step forward”:
Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country. We commend Prime Minister Maliki for his decision to support Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi in his efforts to form a new government in line with the Iraqi constitution. We have heard from a wide range of leaders across the Iraqi political spectrum who have expressed their commitment to work with Dr. Abadi to form a broad, inclusive government with an agenda that can address the needs and legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people. In the last few days, we have also welcomed statements of support from all over the world for the new Prime Minister-designate. These are encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The United States remains committed to a strong partnership with Iraq and the Iraqi people.
Nevertheless, with the political crisis seemingly resolved, Maliki’s successor now inherits immense challenges:
Al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians as he tries to cobble together a Cabinet over the next 30 days. The country's major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army has thus far proved incapable of taking back territory.
Al-Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term, and had vowed to challenge the selection of al-Abadi in court. Military tanks and Humvees had deployed across Baghdad over the past week, raising fears of a coup.
Prime Minister Maliki served for eight years. His decision to resign is a hopeful sign his successor can finally begin addressing two important challenges: unifying the country and taking the fight to ISIS.