Iraq’s president on Monday formally nominated a candidate to replace Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a political breakthrough that also seemed to take Iraq into uncharted territory, as Mr. Maliki gave no signal that he was willing to relinquish power.
The nomination of Haider al-Abadi, who is a member of Mr. Maliki’s Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, came hours after a dramatic late-night television appearance in which a defiant Mr. Maliki challenged the Iraqi president, Fouad Massoum, and threatened legal action for not choosing him as the nominee. As he spoke in the middle of the night, extra security forces, including special forces units loyal to Mr. Maliki, as well as tanks, locked down the fortified Green Zone and took up positions around the city, heightening the sense of drama.
There were no immediate signs on Monday afternoon that Mr. Maliki had taken further steps to use military force to guarantee his survival. And Mr. Maliki was scheduled to make a public statement on television, along with other members of his Dawa Party who remain loyal to him.
Mr. Maliki’s late-night television appearance, in which he appeared to be trying to intimidate Mr. Massoum by mentioning the army in the context of protecting the Constitution, alarmed American officials and left Baghdad wondering if a coup was underway.
Under Iraq’s Constitution, Mr. Abadi now has 30 days in which to form a government that offers meaningful positions to Iraq’s main minority factions, Sunnis and Kurds. During that time, Mr. Maliki will remain as a caretaker leader, and as commander in chief of Iraq’s security forces.
Mr. Maliki’s and Mr. Abadi’s Dawa Party has its roots in the clandestine political opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Mr. Abadi, like many of Iraq’s current leaders, lived in exile during part of the Hussein regime. He has recently been first deputy speaker of Iraq’s Parliament.
The United States has been reluctant to help the Iraqi government as long as it is led by Mr. Maliki, a Shiite Islamist seen by many as exacerbating sectarian and ethnic tensions, alienating some Sunnis and driving them to join the militants.
Even many who are opposed to Mr. Maliki’s coalition appeared ready to accept someone else from inside it. “Really at this point, I think it’s anybody but Maliki,” said a Kurdish politician who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Whether Mr. Maliki will accept someone else from his bloc in the top spot remains unclear.
“The risk is, if he clings to power, he will control the country by force,” said another senior Iraqi politician. “This would be a military coup.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, in Australia, warned that Mr. Maliki must back the constitutional process and not attempt to circumvent it by using his powers as commander in chief to stay in office. He said that any extralegal effort to cling to power would bring a cutoff of international aid.
“There should be no use of force,” Mr. Kerry said in remarks to reporters in Sydney, where he was meeting with government leaders, “no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq.”
Mr. Kerry asserted that the Iraqi people supported a peaceful transition of power and added that there were “three or so” Shiite candidates for prime minister, “none of whom are Mr. Maliki.”
If Mr. Maliki were to call on the Iraqi Army to back his effort to stay in power, he could face resistance from one or several of the many militia groups that have close ties to political parties.
“We’re all worried about a coup d’état,” said Gen. Halgurd Hikmet, the chief spokesman for the Kurdish pesh merga. “Maliki has to know that we have two major units of our troops guarding the Parliament and the Defense Ministry,” he said referring to the Kurdish division of the Iraqi Army.
There are also the forces loyal to the influential Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who oppose Mr. Maliki and are numerous in Baghdad. And there are the fighters of the Badr Corps, who are technically part of the Iraqi Army but remain closely tied to Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful Shiite member of the Iraqi Parliament with links to Iran. Whether Badr fighters will back Mr. Maliki or will move against him could help determine whether he survives.
Whether any of these militias would be deployed is not clear, but the potential for fighting among different factions is real, several people said.
A person close to Mr. Massoum said the president had “taken his briefcase and gone to his office as usual” on Monday morning and that he was calling the leadership of each of the blocs in Parliament so that they can try to meet the 3 p.m deadline to name a prime minister. His presidential guard is on high alert, said a Kurdish leader who was in touch with the guard team, made up of Kurdish pesh merga.
“What Fouad Massoum is doing is trying to make things clear,” said Aram al-Sheikh Mohammed, a leader in Goran, one of the Kurdish parties in the Iraqi Parliament. Although the army was “there in the Green Zone Sunday night, Fouad Massoum’s house was not surrounded” as some media outlets reported, he said.
“One thing all Iraqis need to know,” Mr. Kerry said Monday, “there will be little international support of any kind” if a decision on Iraq’s leadership “deviates from the legitimate Constitution” and interrupts the government formation process.
Without military aid, the Iraqi government would be unable to win back terrain from Sunni militants and are at risk of losing considerably more ground. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria took the town and villages surrounding Jalawla in northern Diyala Province near the Kurdistan border late Sunday and were pushing east.
The winning back of two towns in eastern Kurdistan on Sunday, by Kurdish pesh merga forces in the wake of American airstrikes, were described as only putting a small dent in the advances of the Islamic State, said General Hikmet of the pesh merga. However the events heartened Kurdish fighters and the public and has changed the sense of their ability to take on ISIS fighters.
The situation in Baghdad on Monday morning was tense, with army troops on high alert. Soldiers manned numerous checkpoints and filled the Green Zone where the prime minister’s offices are situated, as well as the offices of Parliament and of other government figures.
The Kurds have begun receiving weapons from outside sources, American officials said on Monday. Although the United States was aware of the weapons deliveries, officials would not comment on the types of arms or on who was providing them.