BAGHDAD: Iraq’s new prime minister-designate won swift endorsements from the United States and Iran Tuesday as he called on political leaders to end crippling feuds that have let jihadists seize a third of the country.
Haider al-Abadi still faces opposition closer to home, where his Shiite party colleague Nouri al-Maliki has refused to step aside after eight years as premier that have alienated Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority and irked Washington and Tehran.
However, Shiite militia and army commanders long loyal to Maliki signaled their backing for the change, as did many people on the streets of Baghdad, eager for an end to fears of a further descent into sectarian and ethnic bloodletting.
A statement from Maliki’s office said he had met with senior security officials and army and police commanders to urge them “not to interfere in the political crisis.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah congratulated Abadi on his appointment, the state news agency SPA reported, in a sign of Riyadh’s eagerness to see Maliki go.
In a message sent to Abadi, the king called on “God Almighty to grant you success ... in restoring cohesion” among the Iraqi people and “preserving Iraq’s unity and achieving its security, stability and development.”
Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal welcomed Maliki’s departure and when asked if it was a prerequisite for stability and security in Iraq, he replied: “It’s the only good news I heard lately.”
Senior Iranian officials congratulated Abadi on his nomination, three months after a parliamentary election left Maliki’s bloc as the biggest in the legislature.
“Iran supports the legal process that has taken its course with respect to choosing Iraq’s new prime minister,” the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council was quoted as saying.
“Iran favors a cohesive, integrated and secure Iraq.”
Meanwhile, state television in Iraq said that Abadi “called on all political powers who believe in the constitution and democracy to unite efforts and close ranks to respond to Iraq’s great challenges.”
One politician close to Abadi told Reuters that the prime minister-designate had begun contacting leaders of major groups to sound them out about forming a new Cabinet. The president said Monday he hoped he would succeed within a month.
A statement from a major Shiite militia group, Asaib Ahl Haq, which has backed Maliki and reinforced the Iraqi army as it fell back from the north in June amid an offensive spearheaded by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), urged an end to the legalistic arguments of the kind used by Maliki to justify his retaining power and urged “self-restraint by all sides.”It said leaders should “give priority to the public interest over the private” and respect religious guidance – a clear reference to indications that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shiite, favored the removal of Maliki to address the national crisis.
As Western powers and international aid agencies considered further help for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes and under threat from ISIS militants near the Syrian border, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington would consider requests for military and other assistance once Abadi had formed a government to unite the country.
Kerry, who has warned Maliki not to resort to force to hold on to power, said that Abadi could win more U.S. military and economic assistance.
“We are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq’s government starts to build a new government,” he told a news conference in Australia, where he also reaffirmed that Washington would not send combat troops.
“The best thing for stability in Iraq is for an inclusive government to bring the disaffected parties to the table and work with them in order to make sure there is the kind of sharing of power and decision-making so that people feel confident the government represents all of their interests,” Kerry added.
It remains unclear how much support Maliki, who remains acting premier, has to obstruct the formation of a new administration. One senior government official told Reuters that his fears of a military standoff in the capital had eased as police and troops had reduced their presence on the streets.
Meanwhile, a U.S. drone strike destroyed a militant mortar position threatening Kurdish forces who were defending refugees near the Syrian border.
The U.S. airstrikes, which began last week, have reinvigorated Iraqi Kurdish forces battling ISIS.
In violence Tuesday, a car bomb exploded in the Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniya, killing four people and wounding 13 others, police said, while another detonated in the commercial district of Karradah, resulting in 11 dead and 28 wounded. The Karradah blast was about 200 meters from Abadi’s house, although the precise target was not immediately clear.