BAGHDAD: Nuri al-Maliki finally bowed to pressure with Iraq and beyond on Thursday and stepped down as prime minister, paving the way for a new coalition that world and regional powers hope can quash a Sunni Islamist insurgency that threatens Baghdad.
Maliki ended eight years of often divisive, sectarian rule and endorsed fellow Shia Haider al-Abadi in a televised speech during which he stood next to his successor. Earlier, a leading figure in the Sunni minority told Reuters he had been promised US help to fight the Islamic State militants.
Though there was no immediate comment from Washington the remarks by the governor of the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, such a move could revive cooperation between Sunni tribes, the Shia-led authorities and US forces that was credited with thwarting al Qaeda in Iraq several years ago.
Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi told Reuters his request, made in meetings with US diplomats and a senior military officer, included air support against the militants who have a tight grip on large parts of his desert province and northwestern Iraq.
Dulaimi said the Americans had promised to help. There was no immediate confirmation from US officials on a day when President Barack Obama said troops planning an evacuation of refugees further north were standing down as US air strikes and supply
drops had broken the “siege of Mount Sinjar”.
Governor Dulaimi said in a telephone interview: “Our first goal is the air support. Their technology capability will offer a lot of intelligence information and monitoring of the desert and many things which we are in need of.
“No date was decided but it will be very soon and there will be a presence for the Americans in the western area.”
After its capture of the northern metropolis of Mosul in June, a swift push by the Islamic State to the borders of the autonomous ethnic Kurdish region alarmed Baghdad and last week drew the first US air strikes on Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011.
US involvement in Anbar is a far more sensitive matter.
The region, sparsely populated and forming much of Iraq’s border with Syria, was deeply anti-American during the US occupation. Tribal leaders and local people saw the replacement of fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein by a US-backed leadership dominated by Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority as a threat and took up arms. Al Qaeda fighters flooded in to join them.
The United States mounted its biggest offensive of the occupation against a variety of Islamist militants in the Anbar city of Falluja, just west of Baghdad. Its soldiers experienced some of their fiercest combat since the Vietnam War.
Eventually, the US military was able to persuade some of its most diehard Sunni opponents to turn against al Qaeda.
The strategy brought a period of calm. But Maliki went on to alienate many Sunnis. His eventual departure followed several days in which he insisted on his right to form a new government based on the results of a parliamentary election in late April.
Maliki resisted months of pressure to step down from Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow Shias, Shia regional power Iran and the United States. The Islamic State, disowned by al Qaeda as too radical after it took control of large parts of Syria, capitalised on its Syrian territorial gains and sectarian tensions in Iraq to gain control of Falluja and Anbar’s capital Ramadi early this year. It is not clear how much support Dulaimi would have locally for cooperation with the Americans. Elected last year, some in the region have criticised him for working too closely with Maliki rather than defending Sunni interests.
Iraq’s president nominated Abadi, who is seen as a moderate Shia with a decent chance of improving ties with Sunnis.
The Sahwa, the US-funded militia drawn from the country’s Sunni Muslim tribes, were a driving force in fighting al Qaeda from 2007. A US decision to hand over responsibility for the Sahwa to the Shia-dominated government in 2009 alienated them and drove some to join IS. Abadi is in the sensitive process of trying to form a new government in a country where sectarian tensions are rising; bombings, kidnappings and executions are part of daily life.
On Thursday, a bomb attached to a bus in central Baghdad killed three people and wounded six, police and medics said.
Bloodshed is back at the levels of 2006-2007, the peak of a sectarian civil war. Abadi faces the challenge of trying to rein in Shia militias accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis and persuading the once dominant Sunni minority that they will have a bigger share of power.
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