Maliki refuses to go as Iraqis turn to new leader

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BAGHDAD  – Nuri al-Maliki stuck to his guns and refused to accept his removal as Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday, but his hold on power was tenuous as Iran’s supreme leader, who has significant clout inside Iraq, publicly backed his replacement.

Taking to state television as acting premier, Maliki said the supreme court must rule on this week’s move to ask his Islamic Dawah Party colleague Haider al-Abadi to form a new government – a change that Iran, the United States and many Iraqis see as vital to halt the advance of Takfiri militants.

But while the loyalty of at least some Shia militia and government forces remains uncertain, there were further signs that Maliki, blamed for alienating the Sunni minority during his eight years in power, is isolated, even among fellow Shia’s.

U.S. President Barack Obama – whose European allies followed his lead on Wednesday to arm Kurdish forces that have taken the recent brunt of fighting with the ISIS – has already offered Abadi its endorsement. Washington lost patience with Maliki, who rose from obscurity during the U.S. occupation.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei offered his personal endorsement to Abadi. He very publicly distanced himself in the process from Maliki, who has looked for support from Iran, where he spent years in exile opposing West backed dictator Saddam Hussein.

“I hope the designation of the new prime minister in Iraq will untie the knot and lead to the establishment of a new government and teach a good lesson to those who aim for sedition in Iraq,” Ayatollah Khamenei told a gathering in Tehran.

Iranian media carried reports that the leader sent an envoy last month to take part in discussions with Iraqi  political and religious leaders to find an alternative to Maliki, who had held on since a parliamentary election in April despite being blamed by many for fuelling sectarian hatreds.

Those leaders, including Iraq’s reclusive top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, last week rallied around Abadi, who long ran a British engineering company, as a compromise figure who could bring moderate Sunnis into power to cooperate on holding off the militant offensive in the north.

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