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Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki resigns as prime minister, backs successor Abadi

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Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has agreed to resign and lend his support to Haider al-Abadi, who was named to replace him this week amid fears that Maliki might seek to hold on to power through force.

"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 favour of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi," Maliki said in a televised address late on Thursday, with Abadi standing by his side.

Maliki said his decision to resign was based on a desire to "safeguard the high interests of the country" and spoke of the "terrorist" threat the country was facing from an Islamist insurgency.

Iraq's President Fouad Masoum moved to replace the embattled premier on Monday, asking deputy speaker Abadi to serve as PM and form a new government.

Maliki called the president's decision a "dangerous violation" of the constitution. In a televised speech showing him flanked by his allies in parliament and broadcast just hours after Masoum nominated the deputy speaker, Maliki accused the president of blocking his reappointment as prime minister and of waging "a coup against the constitution and the political process".

Maliki also accused Washington of supporting the move, saying the US "stood [on] the side of violating the constitution".

"We assure all the Iraqi people and the political groups that there is no importance or value to this nomination,'' he said.

Later on Monday security forces loyal to Maliki deployed on the streets of Baghdad, closing two of the capital's main avenues as hundreds of his supporters rallied in the streets and underscoring fears that the premier might seek to stay in power through force.

Those fears were somewhat quelled, however, when Maliki publicly ordered Iraq's security forces not to "intervene" in the leadership crisis on Tuesday.

In a statement on his official website, Maliki urged the army, police and security forces "to stay away from the political crisis and continue in their security and military duties to defend the country". As prime minister, Maliki was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Support for rival Abadi

Maliki appeared to be increasingly isolated in recent days as world leaders rushed to congratulated Abadi, including regional heavyweight Iran. The Iranian foreign ministry issued a statement Tuesday urging Abadi to "rapidly unveil his cabinet" and pledging the Islamic republic's continued support.

A former supporter of Maliki's, Iran is a key powerbroker in Iraq and influential with many of its Shiite political parties. Tehran's apparent reversal increased the pressure on Maliki, who was unlikely to succeed in a campaign to remain in power without Iranian support. Iran was influential in ensuring that Maliki served a second term following an inconclusive general election in 2010.

US officials also quickly signalled their readiness to support a new government in Iraq, with Vice President Joe Biden calling Abadi in the hours after his appointment to express Washington's "full support" and congratulate him on his nomination. According to the White House, Abadi told Biden that he intends "to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat" posed by the Islamist militants now sweeping through Iraq.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on Tuesday called Abadi's nomination "good news". Saudi Arabia had long accused Maliki of fostering the conditions for Iraq's current jihadist insurgency through years of marginalising the Sunni minority.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi also "welcomed" Abadi's appointment in a statement that day.

Maliki 'alienated Sunnis'

Maliki's critics, from Washington to Riyadh, say he has systematically alienated Sunnis from the political process, thus fuelling support for the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL) who have now seized towns and cities across northern Iraq and have threatened to march on Baghdad. The Islamist group, which now calls itself the Islamic State, poses the biggest threat to Iraqi stability since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sectarian and inter-religious violence has again become widespread, reaching levels not seen since unrest peaked in 2006-2007 in the era following the US-led invasion.

Iraq's political infighting sparked international fears that the disarray in Baghdad could hamper efforts to stem further advances by the ISIS militants, who have continued to seize territory and killed hundreds of members of Iraq's Yazidi minority in recent weeks.

Abadi, a Shiite, is a low-key figure who was educated at the University of Manchester. He has served as the head of the parliamentary finance committee, as a political adviser to Maliki and as minister of communications.
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