Iraq’s divisive premier Nouri al-Maliki has dropped his bid to stay in power, bowing to huge domestic and international pressure two months into a jihadist-led offensive threatening to tear the country apart.
The two-term premier threw in the towel after an acrimonious political battle and backed his designated successor, Haidar al-Abadi, a fellow member of the Shi’ite party Dawa.
“I announce before you today … the withdrawal of my candidacy in favour of the brother Doctor Haidar al-Abadi,” he said in a televised address, with Abadi standing next to him.
Iraq’s President Fouad Massoum named al-Abadi on Monday to form the next government, but al-Maliki had until now refused to step aside.
Maliki, 64, turned the page on eight years that saw him rise from the relative anonymity of a former exile who returned in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion to become a feared and powerful ruler.
Quelling fears a desperate bid to cling to power could worsen what is already Iraq’s worst crisis in years, Maliki said he was stepping aside to “facilitate the progress of the political process and the formation of the new government”.
He defended his record at the helm but critics say his sectarian policies have alienated and radicalised the Sunni minority, most of whose heartland extremist fighters swept across two months ago, facing little or no popular resistance.
The White House welcomed Maliki’s decision to drop his bid to remain prime minister, calling it “another major step forward in uniting” a country which threatens to be torn apart by the jihadist offensive and political infighting.
“We commend Prime Minister Maliki for his decision to support Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi in his efforts to form a new government in line with the Iraqi constitution,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement.
The UN’s top envoy in Iraq also praised Maliki’s decision, calling it a “historic milestone”.
“The decision of Mr Maliki to allow the formation of a new government to proceed without further delay demonstrates statesmanship and a commitment to the democratic process and the constitution,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement.
“It will allow for another historic milestone – the peaceful transition of authority in a country that has been through too much bloodshed and violence,” he said.