U.S. President Barack Obama praised Monday’s selection of Iraqi lawmaker Haider al-Abadi as the next prime minister, calling it "a promising step in this critical effort" to build an inclusive new government and to battle insurgents of the Islamic State that threaten the country’s stability.
Iraqi President Fouad Massoum picked Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament, on Monday to lead the Baghdad government as it faces the onslaught of militants who have overrun much of its northern and western parts.
Obama, speaking from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, said he and Vice President Joe Biden both had phoned Abadi to pledge U.S. support.
"This new Iraqi leadership has a difficult task," Obama said, citing the challenge of regaining the confidence of Iraqis and the international community.
"We stand ready to partner with Iraq" and its new government, Obama said, "and build on today's progress."
He urged those working to form a new administration to come together peacefully with a goal of eliminating the threat of Islamic State militants who have seized much of the country with little opposition.
The president noted recent U.S. airstrikes in support of Kurdish fighters and civilian refugees in northern Iraq. He said U.S. aircraft remain in position to strike at extremists seeking to carve out a caliphate in the vast regions now under their control.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting an end to his eight-year rule. Seeking a third term, he has defied calls from Sunnis, Kurds and some fellow Shi'ites to step aside for a less polarizing figure.
Obama, who had authorized airstrikes on the Islamic militants last week, said the U.S. had "stepped up" military advice to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The U.S. president noted the U.S. had continued airdrops of humanitarian supplies to the Iraqi religious minorities, especially Yazidis, trapped on Mount Sinjar. He also thanked the United Kingdom, France and other countries for providing aid.
Maliki resists move to replace him
Soon after Monday's nomination of Abadi, Maliki appeared on TV with members of his political bloc who insisted that they would not accept the nomination and that Maliki remained their choice for prime minister.
The designated prime minnister, Abadi, has 30 days to form a government.
He voiced optimism that the country eventually can defeat the Islamic State insurgents who are seeking to install an Islamic caliphate throughout the vast lands they have overtaken.
"I have confidence that, with the people and political blocs, we would be able to overcome this barbaric and savage attack on the Iraqi people and provide a good environment for the Iraqi people to live in,'' Abadi said.
Iraqis had been anticipating Abadi's nomination for weeks. The presence of key Shi'ite leaders at the ceremony inside Baghdad's Green Zone indicated strong support from other Shi'ites.
But high political drama preceded his appointment, as Iraqi media reported that security forces loyal to Maliki had deployed across Baghdad and surrounded the Green Zone.
Asharqiya TV reported that the president's security guards were on high alert to protect his residence as he nominated Abadi. Some Iraqi journalists had speculated that Maliki would attempt to stop the nomination.
Maliki stands his ground
In an address on Iraqi TV overnight, Maliki accused the Iraqi president of violating the constitution by delaying the nomination of a new prime minister. He appealed to Iraqi's Supreme Court to force Massoum to name his political bloc to form the new government because it had the most seats in parliament.
Al Arabiya TV reported that three out of eight Supreme Court judges had ruled in Maliki's favor in rapid consultation by telephone. However, the ruling was moot because Abadi is in fact a member of Maliki's alliance.
Maliki's son-in-law, Hussein al-Maliki, opposes the Abadi nomination, calling it "illegal and a breach of the constitution. We will go to the federal court to object to the nomination.”
A parliamentary session to discuss a new Iraqi government has been postponed until August 19.
Critics said Maliki alienated Sunnis, prompting them to support Islamic State militants who have seized a large chunk of northern Iraq and have threatened to march on Baghdad, posing the biggest threat to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Sectarian violence has become widespread in Iraq again, reaching levels seen when a civil war peaked in 2006-2007.
US, UN support
Abadi served as head of the Iraqi's finance committee, a political adviser to the prime minister and minister of communications. He was educated at the University of Manchester in England. He's a low-key figure whose favorite quotation, according to his Facebook biography, is this: "The key to leadership is tolerance."
Ahead of the court ruling, the United States and United Nations expressed support for Massoum and the selection of a prime minister who will lead an inclusive new Iraqi government.
Obama and Biden on Monday called Massoum to commend him for making the nomination and moving Iraq toward an inclusive new government government, calling it a "key milestone," the White House said in a statement.
Biden also emphasized the United States' interest in improving coordination with the new government and Iraqi security forces to turn back Islamist militants.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that measure is critical for Iraq's stability and urged Maliki to avoid inflaming the situation.
Kerry, speaking Monday from Australia, where he and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have arrived for a meeting in Sydney Tuesday, said Iraqis "need to know that there will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitutional process that is in place and being worked on now. They need to finish that and give a new government an opportunity to be voted on and move forward."
U.S. forces are attempting to blunt an offensive by the extremist Islamic State group that threatens to overrun Irbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Hagel said three days of American airstrikes against Islamic State forces have been "very effective."
However, Reuters reported Monday that the militants continued to make gains against the Kurds. The news agency also said Baghdad was bracing for potential conflict between supporters of Maliki and rvals within the Shi'ite majority.
United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon also commended the Iraqi president for the movement toward forming a new government.
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special representative for Iraq, said Monday the president is acting in line with the constitution and called on Iraqi security forces to refrain from actions that could be seen at interfering in the political process.
The United States will "continue to support the Iraqi security forces in every way that we can as they request assistance there," Hagel said, "and we will again build partnerships as we are now, recognizing the threat not just to the United States but to the civilized world."
The U.S. defense chief said Australia, Britain and France are working with the U.S. to supply humanitarian aid for the thousands of displaced Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities trapped in the area, many of them atop Mount Sinjar.
US consulate staff temporarily withdrawn
The U.S. Agency for International Development said Monday it is sending a disaster-assistance responsse team to Iraq to expedite life-saving assistance to those caught in the violence.
The United States has started providing weapons directly to Kurdish forces in Iraq, who say they have been able to retake two towns from Islamic State militants.
Late Sunday, the U.S. State Department said it has temporarily removed some staff from the U.S. consulate in Irbil. In a statement, it said personnel were dispatched to the southern city of Basra and the Jordanian capital of Amman "out of an abundance of caution rather than any one specific threat."
The International Organization for Migration says the number of internally displaced people in Iraq now totals more than 1 million.
Analysts weigh in on Maliki
U.S. officials and many Western analysts said Maliki, a Shi'ite, has failed to unify the divided country since taking office. They described him as increasingly unacceptable to Iraq's Sunni Muslims, to Kurds and to many of his fellow Shi'ites.
RAND Corp. analyst Patrick Johnston said the court case is another sign that Maliki is more interested in maintaining his own position than confronting the challenges facing his country.
"It’s just the most brash and brazen form of misbehavior and political conflict that we’ve seen from Prime Minister Maliki, the corruption, the negligence in terms of developing the security services, as we’ve seen the Islamic State [militants] go on the offensive and take over large chunks of the country," Johnston said.
"Maliki has been primarily focused on keeping his own job and his grasp on power," Johnston added.
Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University, told VOA he doubted Abadi would have accepted the nomination without “significant support from some of the powerful people in power centers of the Shia community.”
He questioned whether Maliki would agree to go quietly "and reasonably move forward on other things or go to battle on this, either politically or physically," Sullivan said. "He doesn't seem to be willing to back down on this.”
Sullivan said he thought many in Maliki's own party "have turned on him," but he worries that Abadi belongs to the conservative Shi'ite Da'awa Party, which many Sunnis don't look upon favorably.
VOA's Edward Yeranian contributed to this report. Material also was provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.