After eight years in office, Nouri Al-Maliki finally dropped his bid to stay in power, leading Iraq to the threshold — at least in theory — of a "peaceful transition of authority."
But a few days later the Iraqi crisis deepened when Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces aided by US air strikes on Sunday retook the country's largest dam, outside Mosul, from the so-called Islamic State who seized it the previous week.
With the Islamic State far from defeated, and greater international focus on Kurdish calls for independence, which could inaugurate the partition of the country, many believe that Iraq’s “transition" of power will not be so peaceful after all.
The continued threat of the Islamic State group is just one of the reasons new premier Haider Al-Abadi is being watched closely relative to his ability to bring peace to war-torn Iraq.
Did Maliki withdraw due to international pressure?
The United Nations and Washington have praised Maliki for stepping down as Iraq's prime minister. Many believe Maliki bowed to domestic and international pressure, announcing his departure in a televised speech Thursday.
Majid Rafizadeh, a member of Harvard International Review's advisory board, told Ahram Online that Maliki's decision to step aside is a rare development in Iraq’s history when it comes to the peaceful transition of authority.
“From my perspective, several issues altered Maliki's calculations, his insistence on retaining power, and his move to give up on last-ditch efforts to hold onto power,” Rafizadeh said.
The suddenness with which he stepped down illustrated the extent to which a powerful Sunni insurgency has wreaked havoc on Baghdad's rigid political structure.
As the Islamic State advanced further into the northern region of Iraq last weekend, politicians heaped more pressure on Maliki to relinquish power.
Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, believes that the main reason Maliki agreed to withdraw his candidacy for reelection was a loss of support within his popular base.
“His bloc, the State of Law Coalition, was split, and then his own Dawa Party turned on him after Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani said they should pick someone else,” Sowell asserts.
Sajad Jiyad, Iraq analyst and commentator, concurs that Maliki was forced out by Sistani.
The Iranian-born cleric, Sistani is Iraq’s most influential religious leader.
Since the overthrow of the Baath Party, Sistani has played a consistently prominent role in regional religious and political affairs. He has been called the "most influential" figure in post-invasion Iraq.
Sistani's upcoming religious rulings are expected to galvanise a significant movement within Iraq’s majority-Shia population.
Is Abadi the man Iraq needs?
Abadi became in charge of Iraq at a time of national crisis and deep division, with unrest sweeping one Iraqi town after the next. Does Abadi have what it takes to bring matters again under control?
While Maliki touted his accomplishments during his eight years in power in his speech, including multiple major oil extraction deals and the withdrawal of US troops, he leaves a legacy of profound sectarianism, institutional dysfunction, and a weak military.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched an operation to retake Tikrit from Islamic State fighters while Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by US warplanes pressed a counter-offensive against jihadists Monday.
The recapture of Mosul Dam marks the biggest prize yet clawed back from Islamic State jihadists since they launched a major offensive in northern Iraq in June, sweeping Iraqi security forces aside.
Jiyad told Ahram Online that even if Abadi is a capable leader able to address the bad policies of the previous government, he may not be able to improve the situation overall as there is an inherent dysfunctionality to Iraq’s democracy.
"Maliki retains leadership of his party and the State of Law Coalition that has over 90 MPs in Iraq’s parliament, meaning he will remain a significant force in Iraqi politics," Jiyad says.
But the focus now is on his successor, who comes into the role in arguably tougher conditions than Maliki did in 2006, at the height of the sectarian strife that ravaged the country.
The continued threat of the Islamic State group, manifest in its capcity to conduct ethnic cleansing almost at will, is an existential threat to any prospect of a democratic Iraq.
AFP reported that Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying Anbar Province, where Sunni frustrations with Maliki's sectarian policies pushed some to join an insurgency led by Islamic State militants.
Sowell adds that Abadi has no track record on Sunni-Shia issues. His focus has been budget and finance issues, as he was chairman of the finance committee in parliament previously.
"He faces a tough challenge not only in Anbar but also in Salah Al-Din and Diyala and Ninawa. His coalition base is Shia Islamist. He does appear to be personally more flexible and pragmatic than Maliki, but expectations should not be too high," Sowell adds.
Rafizadeh told Ahram Online that Maliki was isolated in all dimensions — domestically, regionally and internationally. Thus, "I think the expectations from Haider Al-Abadi are going to be high. However, we should not expect that he will make radical changes in the Iraqi political system of governance," he added.
Abadi comes from the same political party as Maliki, the Dawa Party, after all, and he represents specific sections of Iraqi society.
"Nevertheless, in comparison to Maliki, Abadi's background reveals that he is more of a moderate person, and willing to compromise." In other words, he has shown to be a calculative politician when it comes to dealing with crisis.
"I think, Mr Abadi will continue to seek the support of the US and Iran to defeat the Islamic State, and he will use his power, influence and skills of persuasion to address this task, and the sectarian conflict,” Rafizadeh said.
It remains to be seen if Abadi can go beyond managing and towards resolving the underlying sectarian issues that wrack Iraq, and so "help establish a representative and democratic system of governance in Iraq," Rafizadeh concludes.