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Iraq's PM-designate gains support as Maliki's bid falters

Iraq's premier-designate was gaining widespread support from countries hoping political reconciliation will undercut jihadists, as Iran on Tuesday (Aug 12) appeared to further dash Nuri al-Maliki's hopes of clinging to power.

BAGHDAD: Iraq's premier-designate was gaining widespread support from countries hoping political reconciliation will undercut jihadists, as Iran on Tuesday (Aug 12) further dashed Nuri al-Maliki's hopes of clinging to power.

Washington urged Maliki's successor, Haidar al-Abadi, to rapidly form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against jihadist-led militants who have overrun swathes of the country. The United States, and other countries, said they were working to deliver much-needed arms to the Kurds, who are fighting the Islamic State (IS) on several fronts.

Abadi came from behind in a protracted and acrimonious race to become Iraq's new premier when President Fuad Masum Monday accepted his nomination and tasked him with forming a government. He has 30 days to build a team which will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that IS "is not the only game in town".

"We are urging him to form a new cabinet as swiftly as possible and the US stands ready to support a new and inclusive Iraqi government and particularly its fight against ISIL (IS)," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Sydney Tuesday. He also reiterated Washington's stance that US air strikes launched last week were not a prelude to the reintroduction of American combat forces.

In a further blow for Maliki, Iran on Tuesday ended its long-time support for him and swung its allegiance behind Abadi in a congratulatory message. "We congratulate Haidar al-Abadi on his nomination as prime minister, for him personally and for religious dignitaries, the Iraqi population and its political groups," Ali Shamkhani, secretary and representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in Tehran.

TIME OF CRISIS

The political transition comes at a time of crisis for Iraq. After seizing the main northern city of Mosul in early June and sweeping through much of the Sunni heartland, jihadist militants bristling with US-made military equipment they captured from retreating Iraqi troops launched another onslaught this month.

They attacked Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities west, north and east of Mosul, sparking a mass exodus that took the number of people displaced in Iraq this year soaring past the million mark. A week of devastating gains saw the jihadists take the country's largest dam and advance to within striking distance of the autonomous Kurdish region. They also attacked the large town of Sinjar, forcing thousands of mainly Yazidi civilians to run up a mountain and hide there with little food and water.

US strikes and cross-border Kurdish cooperation yielded early results on several fronts, with thousands of Yazidis managing to escape their mountain death trap and Kurdish troops beginning to claw back lost ground.

It is unknown how many remain on the mountain however and UN monitors called for urgent action to save the community. "All possible measures must be taken urgently to avoid a mass atrocity and potential genocide within days or hours," said UN minority rights expert Rita Izsak.

The United States has been leading an increasingly international effort to deliver humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands who have poured into Kurdistan over the past week alone.


ARMING THE KURDS

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said it was the Iraqi government that had requested US assistance in providing the peshmerga with more arms. "We are ... helping get that equipment to Arbil," he said.

Obama had made it clear he thought no effective and coordinated anti-jihadist counter-offensive could take place while Maliki was still in charge. But the Shiite leader appears determined to pull every stop to stay in power for a third term.

Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer and the author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future, said Maliki had some reasons to worry about his future if he relinquishes power. "There's been so much blood, so much suffering over the past few years, he's going to be a marked man," he said.

Surrounded by 30-odd loyalists from his Shiite bloc, Maliki gave a speech denouncing Abadi's nomination as a violation of the constitution and accused the US of working to undermine him. But, even if he could still complicate the handover of power, he looked more isolated than ever.

Maliki on Tuesday ordered the armed forces to "stay away from the political crisis", assuaging fears that he could seek to leverage his military power to stay in power.

While Maliki's Shiite militias and Iraq's armed forces have tried to battle IS fighters, the outgoing premier is seen by many as partly to blame for the crisis for having alienated the Sunni minority.