U.S. and Kurdish flags flutter in the wind while displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community cross the Syria-Iraq border. / Khalid Mohammed, AP
Iraqi President Fouad Massoum on Monday named a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upping the stakes in the fierce struggle for political control of the besieged government.
Massoum's nominee, deputy speaker of the parliament Haider al-Ibadi, has 30 days to form a government that can win parliamentary approval.
Al-Maliki, however, vowed to fight for a third four-year term that begins this year. His Shiite-dominated bloc won the most parliament seats in April elections. On Monday, he accused Massoum, a Kurd elected by parliament, of carrying out "a coup against the constitution and the political process."
Iraqi special forces loyal to al-Maliki were deployed at Baghdad's main intersections. Two main streets were partially closed as hundreds of al-Maliki's supporters waved posters and signs while shouting, "We are with you, al-Maliki."
President Obama, speaking to reporters Monday while vacationing at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., praised the designation of a new prime minister, calling the prospect of a new government "a promising step forward."
He called for formation of a new cabinet "as quickly as possible" and pledged U.S. support.
Al-Maliki has drawn the ire of U.S. officials by refusing to build a coalition government to include the minority Sunnis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier Monday reiterated the Obama administration's support for al-Maliki's exit, saying the Shiite leader has little backing in Iraq.
"We believe that the vast majority of the people of Iraq are united in an effort to be able to have this peaceful transition," Kerry said in remarks made in Sydney, Australia. "We believe that the government formation process is critical, in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq. And our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters."
Al-Ibadi, a British-trained engineer who was in exile during much of Saddam Hussein's rule, is a member of al-Maliki's Dawa party and has the support the National Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties that includes Dawa. Dawa itself, however, issued a statement saying it would not support al-Ibadi.
The Obama administration was quick to show support for al-Ibadi. Vice President Biden spoke with al-Ibadi and Massoum, congratulating them on the nomination.
"The prime minister-designate expressed his intent to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government," the White House said in a statement.
The nomination came on the same day the Obama administration acknowledged it has begun providing weapons to Kurdish forces who are battling the powerful Islamic State army - a Sunni militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL - in northern Iraq.
The Islamic State has vowed to carve a Muslim state out of Sunni-majority sections of Iraq and Syria. The group, with its harsh interpretation of Islamic law, has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and other western countries.
"ISIL has obtained some heavy weaponry, and the Kurds need additional arms and we're providing those," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
The militants are also the target of U.S. airstrikes that began last week, designed to protect U.S. personnel and religious minorities under siege from the militants. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday said airstrikes "have been very effective, from all the reports that we've received on the ground."
The U.S. airstrikes have reinvigorated Iraqi Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq. The Kurdish fighters retook two towns - Makhmour and al-Gweir, some 28 miles from the Kurdish capital of Irbil - from the Sunni militants on Sunday, achieving one of their first victories after weeks of retreating.
The U.S. launched a fourth round of airstrikes Sunday against militant vehicles and mortars firing on Irbil as part of efforts to blunt the militants' advance and protect American personnel in and around the Kurdish capital. U.S. warplanes and drones have also attacked militants firing on minority Yazidis around Sinjar, which is in the far west of the country near the Syrian border.
Contributing: David Jackson, USA TODAY; Associated Press
Copyright 2014USA TODAY
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