Iraq's president named a new prime minister to replace Nuri al-Maliki yesterday, urging him to form a broad government that can stem communal bloodshed, but it was unclear whether Maliki would bow to US and Iranian pressure to step aside.
A Shi'ite Muslim blamed by erstwhile allies in Washington and Tehran as well as Baghdad for driving the alienated Sunni minority into revolt, Maliki deployed loyal militias and special forces in the capital yesterday after making a defiant speech accusing the head of state of abusing the constitution.
Militants from the Islamic State, who routed Maliki's army in the north in June, made new gains over Kurdish forces despite three days of US air strikes and Baghdad, long braced for the Sunni fighters to attack the city, was now tensing for possible clashes between Maliki and rivals within the Shi'ite majority.
There was no immediate reaction from Maliki to the naming of Haider al-Abadi as prime minister. However, Maliki's son-in-law, a close political ally, told Reuters that he would seek to overturn the nomination in the courts.
President Fouad Masoum asked Abadi, a leader of Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, to lead an administration that can win the support of a parliament elected in April. In remarks broadcast on television, Masoum, an ethnic Kurd, urged him to "form a broader-based government" over the next month.
Abadi himself, who spent decades in exile in Britain during the rule of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, urged national unity against the "barbaric" Islamic State, which has driven tens of thousands from their homes as it swept Baghdad's troops from the north and west to consolidate a "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.
After Washington endorsed Masoum's attempts to break three months of post-election political deadlock that have hamstrung Baghdad's response to the Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry called on Maliki not to resort to force or "stir the waters" when Iraqis were seeking a change of leader.
As police and elite armed units, many equipped and trained by the United States, locked down the capital's streets, Kerry added: "There should be no use of force, no introduction of troops or militias in this moment of democracy for Iraq."
Before Abadi's nomination, a US State Department spokeswoman reaffirmed support for a "a prime minister who can represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner".
"We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process," she said in a statement, adding that the United States "fully supports" Masoum as guarantor of Iraq's constitution.