Iraq violence rages on. What's happened to its leadership?

Aug 12, 2014

Power struggle in Iraqi government threatens to hamper efforts to stem advances by the militants


As Islamic State militants continue their brutal campaign in Iraq, the country's leaders are absorbed in a political power struggle.

A deadlock over the new government has plunged Iraq into a political crisis at a time when violent extremists are seizing large swaths of land, persecuting minorities, forcing thousands to flee their homes and murdering those who get in their way.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is still defying calls to stand down, despite a new successor finally being named. So what is going on?

Why is Maliki so unpopular?

Maliki, who has been in office for two terms, has come under growing criticism at home and abroad for favouring Shia interests and failing to unite the factions of Iraq. Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shia blocs blame Maliki for the sectarian and ethnic divisions that paved the way for the two-month offensive by militants, says the Financial Times. The latest Islamic State crisis has prompted even his closest allies to call for his resignation.

How is Iraq's leadership structured?

Since Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraq's president has been a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia and the parliamentary speaker a Sunni Arab. On 30 April, Iraqis went to the polls to elect the 328 members of parliament, known as the Council of Representatives, who in turn elect the Iraqi president. Last month, Sunni politician Salim al-Jabouri was elected as parliamentary speaker and Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum was elected as Iraq's president, a largely ceremonial role. Massoum had 15 days to name a prime minister from the largest bloc in parliament, but politicians have been wrangling over which bloc is the biggest. After a few delays, Massoum yesterday nominated Haider al-Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament, as prime minister.

Why does Maliki think he should be prime minister?

Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party is part of a wider alliance called the State of Law Coalition. No single party won an outright majority in the last election, but the State of Law Coalition won more than 90 seats. Maliki insists this makes it the largest bloc in parliament and that he should therefore continue to be prime minister. Competing as an MP in Baghdad, Maliki also won 721,000 votes – by far the highest personal vote of any Iraqi politician. 

So is Abadi now in charge?

Abadi will legally become the next prime minister if he can form a government within the next 30 days and gain the parliament's approval. But Maliki bitterly disputes his nomination, describing it as a "violation of the constitution". Abadi has been nominated by the National Alliance, a wide Shia-led bloc which actually includes Maliki's State of Law Coalition as well as many of his fiercest political enemies, explains Middle East Monitor. But Maliki argues that his State of Law Coalition, rather than a wider alliance remains the largest single group in parliament. However, the Washington Post reports that Maliki's State of Law Coalition has "crumbled", with almost half of his own parliamentarians now backing Abadi. The Iraqi army also tweeted yesterday: "We are the army of Iraq, not of Maliki."

Who is Haider al-Abadi?

Born in Baghdad in 1952, Abadi went to university in Baghdad and Manchester. He lived in Britain for many years after his family was targeted by Saddam Hussein's regime and trained as an electrical engineer. He entered politics after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was a key advisor to Maliki in Iraq's first post-invasion elected government. Two weeks ago, he was elected as deputy speaker of parliament. He is often described as relatively moderate and has previously discussed the possibility of Iranian intervention in the fight against the Islamic State. In a blow to Maliki's bid for a third term, President Barack Obama has called Abadi's nomination a "promising step forward".

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