U.S. ready to help new Iraq leader, Iran welcomes choice

BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s new prime minister-designate won swift endorsements from uneasy mutual allies the United States and Iran on Tuesday as he called on political leaders to end crippling feuds that have let jihadists seize a third of the country.

Haider al-Abadi still faces opposition closer to home, where his Shi’ite party colleague Nuri al-Maliki has refused to step aside after eight years as premier that have alienated Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority and irked Washington and Tehran.

However, Shi’ite militia and army commanders long loyal to Maliki signalled their backing for the change, as did many people on the streets of Baghdad, eager for an end to fears of a further descent into sectarian and ethnic bloodletting.

Sunni neighbours Turkey and Saudi Arabia also welcomed Abadi’s appointment. A statement from Maliki’s office said he met senior security officials and army and police commanders to urge them “not to interfere in the political crisis”. A suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint near Abadi’s Baghdad home on Tuesday, two police sources and local media said. There was no immediate word on casualties. At least 17 people were killed in two car bombings earlier on Tuesday in Shi’ite areas of Baghdad.

As Western powers and international aid agencies considered further help for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes and under threat from the Sunni militants of the Islamic State near the Syrian border, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would consider requests for military and other assistance once Abadi forms a government to unite the country.

The United States sent about 130 additional military personnel to northern Iraq on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.

The soldiers will develop options for helping Iraqi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Since June the United States has sent about 700 military personnel to Iraq to protect U.S. diplomats there and take stock of Iraq’s military capacity. The European Union gave the green light on Tuesday for its individual members to supply weapons to Kurdish forces in coordination with Baghdad. Diplomats said France, Italy and the Czech Republic were among the countries in favour of supplying arms. However, there was no immediate indication that they were about to do so.

Underscoring the convergence of interest in Iraq that marks the normally hostile relationship between Washington and Iran, senior Iranian officials congratulated Abadi on his nomination, three months after a parliamentary election left Maliki’s bloc as the biggest in the legislature. Like Western powers, Shi’ite Iran is alarmed by Sunni militants’ hold in Syria and Iraq.

“Iran supports the legal process that has taken its course with respect to choosing Iraq’s new prime minister,” the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the Supreme National Security Council was quoted as saying.

 

“Iran favours a cohesive, integrated and secure Iraq,” he said, adding an apparent appeal to Maliki to concede.

Abadi himself, long exiled in Britain, is seen as a far less polarising, sectarian figure than Maliki, who is also from the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party. Abadi appears to have the blessing of Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite clergy, a major force since U.S. troops toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

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