STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Iraq finally has new leadership. Prime Minister Nouri al'Maliki says he will step aside, making room for a new prime minister. Haider al-Abadi, the new man, will try to form a government that can fight the extremist militants known as the Islamic State. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been covering this story from inside Iraq. He's in Erbil, the Kurdish-controlled capital in the North. Peter, Maliki was defiant for weeks - months, here. What changed his mind?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, people here are saying that for all of his confrontational style and fierce Shiite partisanship, he was recognizing that his base of support was crumbling and, perhaps, most crucially, when the Iranians backed away and the Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq - those were clear signals. There was, also, a lot of pressure from the Americans and others. There was a long day of meetings yesterday, after which, Maliki gave one of his late-night speeches. He had Haider al-Abadi, the man named to succeed, him right by his side. And he basically said that, in order to fight the huge terrorist threat facing Iraq, he needs to step aside, back Abadi's efforts to form a government. He does stay as a caretaker while these talks go on. He says he wants no particular job in the new government, but it remains to be seen. He may wind up part of it.
INSKEEP: So was the bottom line that once Iran abandoned him - Iran being so important in Iraq - he really couldn't keep his job anymore?
KENYON: I think, within Iraqi political circles, that was very noticeable. That was a pretty important factor in this decision.
INSKEEP: OK, so what can you tell us about the man who was standing beside Maliki as he announced his resignation? - Haider al-Abadi, the man who should be the next prime minister.
KENYON: Well, ideologically, Abadi is from the same Islamist Shiite party as Maliki, but he presents a different image. He's an English speaker - British-educated. He's been calling for a more inclusive government in Baghdad for some time - certainly, since the fighters known as the Islamic State took Mosul in June. He gave an interview that month to NPR, and in that interview, he said Iraq's factions have got to set aside their differences to avoid either defeat at the hands of the Islamic State or fragmenting into sectarian mini-states. Here's how he put it.
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HAIDER AL-ABADI: To have a partition - it may be very nice and easy on the map. On the ground, it'll lead to disaster and catastrophe. It may cause regional war. I think every country may come to the aid of their own sect.
INSKEEP: So he sounds like a smooth man - a thoughtful man. As an English speaker, I suppose he can present himself well to the west. Is there a sense that he has firm political support, though, within Iraq itself?
KENYON: Now, frankly, the view in the Kurdish North and elsewhere in Iraq is that he's an untested quantity. What happens next is, pretty much, uncharted territory. We have a rare open window for political compromise with Maliki's move and the threat from the Islamic State. But there are no guarantees that these politicians will be any more cooperative now than they have been in the past. It's a huge task. It's got to be done at lightning speed, compared with the way, usually, these governments get formed. One major incentive could be the promise of greater military aid to fight the Islamic State. If world capitals are satisfied, Iraqis are agreeing to pull together.
INSKEEP: The question always in Iraq is whether everyone there sees themselves as part of Iraq's future. You're there with the Kurds in the North. Of course, the Sunni-dominated areas are the areas that have gone over to the Islamic State, for the most part. Is it your sense where you are, Peter, that there are people still committed to making Iraq work as a single country?
KENYON: I think, yes, at least in the short-term. There was a flurry of nationalism when the Kurdish Peshmerga took Kirkuk a while back. But now that they have suffered some retreats, the Peshmerga are no longer looking as invincible as they were reputed to be. There may be more willingness to work together and form some kind of a unity government. There really isn't time to have the great political debate because the humanitarian situation here keeps getting worse. People here are dismayed by the American assessment that the problem on Mount Sinjar is all but over. Other villages who have watched the brutality that hit Sinjar simply emptied out, vastly increasing the humanitarian crisis. A lot of people relying on assistance - it's a level-three emergency - the U.N.'s highest designation, and the numbers that they're dealing with are enormous.
INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.
KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.