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Turmoil At The Top Raises The Specter Of A Coup In Baghdad


Iraq is facing both a military and a political crisis. Sunni insurgents are advancing through the country and on a day when a new Prime Minister was nominated. The old Prime Minister is refusing to step down. Nouri al-Malki called the nomination a dangerous violation of the Iraqi Constitution. In a moment we'll talk with a State Department official about U.S. policy, but first to Baghdad and Vivian Salama. She's Baghdad bureau chief for the Associated Press, and she told me Malki struck an intransigent pose in his speech today.

VIVIAN SALAMA: He has been very defiant in recent months saying that he will stand for a third term in office despite growing pressure from Iraqis, from his critics and certainly even from his allies to step down, saying that he's just not done enough to keep the country together - to keep the political system together. And so tonight he came out in a double-file line with the members of his political party around him, and he gave a very defiant message once again, saying that there will be consequences for the actions that have been taken against the Constitution, which is sort of how he's been phrasing his accusations against the new president of the country and now the Prime Minister designate, if you will.

BLOCK: And when he says there will be consequences, what does he mean?

SALAMA: He has repeatedly said that failing to respect the legitimacy of his candidacy and of his party's legitimate win in the April election will basically create just an unraveling in the security situation. And he's really, in many ways, used the current unraveling of the security situation in his own defense to say it will only get worse if I leave this place, and so it's in your best interest to keep me around 'cause I'm the only one who knows how to deal with the situation. Many of his critics say the exact opposite. They actually think that he is very much the cause for a lot of the problems in Iraq.

BLOCK: Now, a clear sign of Maliki's defiance on this is that he had deployed security forces and militias out into the streets of Baghdad. Are those militias still in the streets, and what are they doing?

SALAMA: Yeah, they are. I'm very cautioned about discussing this aspect of it because, after all, this is Baghdad - tanks in the streets are not that unusual. My team here at AP - we went out into the streets, and we kind of combed the city to see what was happening. We definitely noticed a heightened sense of security. There were a couple more tanks than usual, a lot of more military vehicles than usual - not tanks, but SUV's and whatnot. And there were definitely special forces and sort of light militia around the city looking like they were protecting various government installations and major squares and things that that. So to an extent, yes, that was definitely the case. But I think it was also, in some cases, a little bit exaggerated.

BLOCK: Tell us a bit about the man who's been nominated to be the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. He's also a Shiite member of the same Dawa Party as Nouri al-Maliki. Is there any reason to assume that he would be able to form a true unity government and mend the sectarian divisions that have so aggrieved the Sunni minority?

SALAMA: Yeah, in a lot of ways his selection is a very interesting selection. He's been one of the more, you know, low-key politicians here. He was minister of communications from 2003 to 2004. It was very brief. And he is Deputy Speaker of Parliament now. But, as you say, he is a member of Prime Minister Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, and that is what makes him such an interesting candidate - because he has this task not just to bring together the feuding Shia parties and coalitions, but also to pull in the Sunnis and, most importantly, the Kurds. So it really remains to be seen. Of course we don't know if this man is going to be the Prime Minister. He still has 30 days to form a government, and he will present that government to the parliament. And the parliament could essentially just scrap the whole thing and start from scratch and have another vote within the alliance. So everything seems to be up in the air right now.

BLOCK: That's Vivian Salama. She's the Baghdad bureau chief for the Associated Press. Vivian, thanks very much.

SALAMA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.