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Politicians Battle For Control Of Iraq's Central Government


We are covering two battles unfolding in Iraq this morning.


Militants who call themselves the Islamic State are continuing their onslaught in northern Iraq. Kurdish forces are fighting back and they're getting direct help from the United States. We'll speak with an official in the Kurdish government in a moment.

GREENE: But first to Baghdad at an important political battle. Yesterday, Iraq's president designated a new prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki said the move violates Iraq's constitution and he holed himself up in Baghdad's Green Zone. We begin with Tim Arango from The New York Times. He joins us on the line from the Iraqi capital. Tim, welcome to the program.

TIM ARANGO: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Give us the latest if you can. Does it look like Nouri al-Maliki will give up power peacefully?

ARANGO: That's a big question. No one expects him to go quietly. And he gave a speech last night in which he sort of blamed the United States for the predicament he is in and said, quote, "we are going to fix this." Most expect that he'll try to drag out a legal process as long as possible, and of course there's always the threat of using the military to guarantee his survival.

GREENE: And we should say he still controls at least portions of the military. There are militias who are loyal to him. And so I gather that that threat is - people consider it very real.

ARANGO: Yeah, there are some units of the security forces and the special forces who are especially loyal to him. Some of them are controlled by his son Ahmed. There are also though - there are militias that probably would not fight on his behalf. There's Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, he has lots of militia units and those guys are opposed to Maliki. And another very, very powerful militia yesterday which is loyal to Maliki actually came out in supporting the political process and said they would back this new choice for prime minister.

GREENE: Well, the person who has been nominated to replace Maliki - the Prime Minister designate Haider al-Abadi. We should say he is from Maliki's party - the Islamist Shiite Party. One of the problems has been that Maliki as a Shiite has had a lot of trouble unifying the country. Is there anything about al-Abadi that suggests that he would be able to do a better job than Maliki has at bringing the country together?

ARANGO: Not necessarily, although he's seen as not an especially strong personality. But I think at this stage, the Kurds and the Sunnis were at the point where anybody but Maliki was good. And this kind of came down to a compromise because Maliki's party actually did win the elections in April. And so by choosing someone from his party to replace him, it does acknowledge the legitimacy of those elections. But on the same hand, if you look at Haider al-Abadi's life story, it's very similar to a lot of the Shiite Islamist leaders in the sense that they, you know, lived in clandestine political opposition to Saddam Hussein. And when you have a lifestyle like that, it's hard to compromise, you know, with other communities in which, you know, you've been fighting against your whole life.

GREENE: Let me just ask you before we let you go about some other reporting you've done on leadership. The leader of the Islamic State known as ISIS, this extremist group that has been doing the fighting in northern Iraq we've heard so much about, remind us who he is. And you've said that he was arrested back in 2004 by the United States.

ARANGO: Yeah, he's known now as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And he was picked up in a raid on a home in Fallujah in 2004. He was not even the target of the raid but was just there. And 10 months later, he was released from American detention along with many, many others as part of a mass release of people that they did not feel were especially problematic.

GREENE: It seems that he has become problematic now as leader of the organization ISIS that is very active in making a lot of gains in the North as we speak.

ARANGO: Yeah, well, it's another one of those things about Iraq in that it's so connected to the American legacy here. And it's not just Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but a lot of the other ISIS leaders and fighters have spent time in American detention here. And one of the big things that Baghdadi did to replenish his organization was organize these mass prison breaks in Iraq last year and the year before. And a lot of these guys who were first picked up by the Americans, you know, were released in Iraq on the battlefield.

GREENE: We've been speaking to Tim Arango. He is the Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. We reached him in Baghdad. Tim, thanks very much.

ARANGO: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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