by Sameer N. Yacoub and Vivian Salama, ASSOCIATED PRESS
BAGHDAD (AP) — The decision by Iraq’s embattled Nouri al-Maliki to step down as prime minister revived hopes on Friday for the formation of a new government that could take on a growing insurgency by Sunni militants that has engulfed much of the country.
The move, which followed weeks of international and domestic pressure, defuses a political deadlock that has plunged Iraq into uncertainty at a time of the nation’s greatest turmoil since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops
Al-Maliki announced he was giving up his post on national television late Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, including his rival and premier-desigante Haider al-Abadi.
He said he was stepping aside in favor of his “brother,” in order to “facilitate the political process and government formation.”
Al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians as he tries to cobble together a Cabinet over the next 30 days. The country’s major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army seems unable to regain territory in the north and west taken by militants from the Islamic State group.
Al-Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolizing power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that has alienated the Sunni minority.
The United States, the U.N. and a broad array of political factions in Iraq had backed al-Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from the Islamic State extremists who have captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.
The crisis in Baghdad escalated when al-Maliki’s Shiite alliance backed al-Abadi to replace him, and the incumbent threatened legal action, saying the attempt to push him out was a violation of the constitution.
But in a meeting of his party earlier Thursday, al-Maliki agreed to endorse al-Abadi and drop the lawsuit, two senior lawmakers from his State of Law parliamentary bloc — Hussein al-Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad — told The Associated Press.
The White House commended al-Maliki’s move and expressed hope that the power shift “can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people” against the threat from Islamic militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move “sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq.”
The challenges for al-Abadi are looming.
“The problems and crises left by al-Maliki are huge,” said Aziz Jaber, a political sciences professor at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University. “The first thing al-Abadi must do is foster real national reconciliation and defuse anger among many Iraqis affected by al-Maliki’s unwise policies.”
The U.N. Security Council urged al-Abadi to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.”
Iraqis of all sects welcomed Thursday’s announcement.
“Now, all we want is a government that respects the people and does not discriminate against them,” said Youssef Ibrahim, 40, a Sunni government employee in Baghdad.
The U.S. and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that will ease anger among Sunnis, who felt marginalized by al-Maliki’s administration, which helped fuel the dramatic sweep by the Islamic State extremist group.
The militants’ lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq since June has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and last week prompted the U.S. to launch aid operations and airstrikes as the militants threatened religious minorities and the largely autonomous Kurdish region.
The U.N. this week declared the situation in Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency” — a decision that came after some 45,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority were able to escape from a remote desert mountaintop where they had been encircled by Islamic State fighters, who view them as apostates and had vowed to kill any who did not convert to Islam.
The U.N. said it would provide increased support to the Yazidis and to 400,000 other Iraqis who have fled since June to the Kurdish province of Dahuk. A total of 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
The United States has been carrying out airstrikes in recent days against Islamic State fighters, helping fend back their advance on Kurdish regions.
In Brussels, the European Union’s foreign ministers held an emergency meeting Friday on Iraq to coordinate their stance on military support for the Kurds and on providing humanitarian assistance for those fleeing the fighting.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini told reporters that she hopes al-Abadi will form a new government “in the next days, not weeks.”
Associated Press reporters Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.