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Iraq Shiite bloc names alternative to Maliki as PM candidate: sources

Sources say Iraq's parliament has chosen Haidar al-Abadi, deputy parliamentary speaker, as its nominee to replace Nuri al-Maliki
Haidar al-Abadi speaks during a UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva last year (AFP)

Iraq's National Alliance parliamentary bloc has chosen Haidar al-Abadi as its nominee for prime minister in place of incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, sources in parliament told AFP Monday.

"The National Alliance has named Haidar al-Abadi as its candidate for prime minister," a lawmaker said. Several other sources in parliament confirmed the decision.

Abadi had recently been chosen as a deputy parliamentary speaker.

Earlier on Monday, Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he planned to sue the country's president in a desperate bid to cling to his job as calls mount for him to step down.

Maliki's shock announcement came after he deployed security forces across Baghdad late Sunday, three days after US strikes against extremist militants in the north of Iraq.

"Today I will file a formal complaint to the federal court against the president," Maliki said in an address broadcast on the stroke of midnight on state television.

He alleged that Iraq's, Kurdish veteran Fuad Masum, had violated the constitution twice, essentially by failing to designate him as the prime minister.

US Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Maliki's announcement, warning the prime minister not to cause trouble.

"We stand absolutely squarely behind President Masum (who) has the responsibility for upholding the constitution of Iraq," Kerry said. "Our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters."

On Sunday Iraq’s parliament adjourned until 19 August with lawmakers unable to agree on a nominee for the post of prime minister despite ever-growing international pressure, several MPs said.

"There can be no explanation for this delay," said Ammar Toma, a Shiite MP from the Fadhilah party. "There are important matters on the table: the fate of the displaced, the security situation."

US President Barack Obama, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was in Erbil on Sunday, have stressed that Iraq needs a new and united government to lead the fight against extremists who control large parts of the country.

Theoretically, Masum had 15 days after his 24 July election to pick a prime minister.

Maliki's Shiite coalition won the April polls comfortably but his standing has been undermined by a devastating extremist offensive launched on 9 June that overran large swathes of Iraq.

The political process has also been complicated by a constitutional tussle on how to define the largest parliamentary bloc entitled to nominate a prime minister.

The 64-year-old premier had pledged in a 2011 AFP interview he would not seek a third term but he has since changed his mind despite flagging support from nearly all his erstwhile allies: the United States, Iran, Shiite clerics and even his Dawa party.

Security everywhere

Security sources told AFP of a massive security deployment, akin to measures taken in a state of emergency, across the capital Baghdad.

"There is a huge security presence, police and army, especially around the Green Zone," the highly-protected district that houses Iraq's key institutions, a high-ranking police officer said.

He said the deployment started at around 10:30 pm (1930 GMT), just 90 minutes before Maliki gave his speech.

While it remains unclear whether Maliki has a valid constitutional argument, the mass deployment of counter-terrorism SWAT teams across Baghdad was an obvious show of force.

"Several streets have been closed... as well as some key bridges," said an official at the interior ministry. "It's all linked to the political situation."

In his brief address, Maliki said Iraq was facing a "dangerous" situation and urged "the sons of Iraq" to be on alert.

Masum is a Kurd and relations between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq have been strained of late. There have also been reports of growing anti-Arab sentiment in Kurdistan with a large protest held in Erbil on Saturday.

The Kurds have long complained that the federal government was not sending them their 17 percent share of federal oil resources.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters then seized long-coveted areas which were in dispute with Baghdad, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region, when routed federal forces retreated in the face of the extremist onslaught two months ago.

That prompted Maliki to accuse the Kurdistan Regional Government of siding with the Islamic State (IS) group and the "caliphate" it declared in late June over parts of Iraq and Syria.

Cash-strapped Kurdistan's troops initially fared better than Baghdad's but over the past week militants have made spectacular gains, seizing the country's largest dam and advancing within striking distance of the Kurdish capital.

Peshmerga fightback

The militant advances, in part, prompted US President Barack Obama to announce on Thursday he was sending warplanes back over the skies of Iraq for the first time since the last US troops withdrew in 2011.

His other justification for intervention, Obama said, was the risk of an impending genocide against the Yazidi minority, many of whose people had been stranded on a mountain in the Sinjar region following an IS attack.

Three days of strikes by US jets and drones appeared to make an impact on both fronts, raising hopes that US intervention could turn the tide on two months of extremist expansion.

"The peshmerga have liberated Makhmur and Gwer," peshmerga spokesman Halgord Hekmat told AFP, adding that "US aerial support helped."

Meanwhile, officials said 20,000 mostly Yazidi civilians who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar since extremists overran their hub of Sinjar a week ago had managed to escape.

They were escorted through Syria and back into Iraqi Kurdistan by Kurdish forces and added to the more than 200,000 displaced people who have already entered the autonomous region since 3 August, according to figures provided by several aid groups.

Only hours before Maliki spoke on television, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was in Iraq to supervise the delivery of French aid.

Britain has also joined a humanitarian effort, which Obama said was aimed at averting an impending genocide by sending in transport planes to drop emergency supplies to Sinjaris.

At pains to assure war-weary Americans he was not being dragged into a new Iraqi quagmire, Obama on Saturday put the onus on Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government.