By Dave Boyer and Maggie Ybarra – The Washington Times
Iraq’s president nominated a new prime minister Monday to replace powerful incumbent Nouri al-Maliki, and President Obama backed the move quickly as the U.S. tried to quell a power struggle in Baghdad and counter the threat from Sunni militants.
Administration officials, meanwhile, said the U.S. has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against Islamic militants in northern Iraq, but the aid has so far been limited to automatic rifles and ammunition. Pentagon officials told The Washington Times that they are debating whether to give rocket launchers to Kurdish fighters engaged in a ground war with the militants.
In a televised address, new Iraqi President Fouad Massoum selected the deputy parliament speaker, Haider al-Ibadi, as Mr. Maliki’s replacement and gave him 30 days to form a government and present it to parliament for approval. Mr. Ibadi, a Shiite who has turned against Mr. Maliki, pledged that his government will “protect the Iraqi people.”
Mr. Obama interrupted briefly his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard to praise the choice of Mr. Ibadi, saying it marked the start of a new effort to form a more inclusive government to unify Iraqis in the fight against terrorists of the Islamic State.
“Iraq took a promising step forward in this critical effort,” Mr. Obama said. “This is an important step in forming a new government that can unite Iraq’s different communities.”
Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden called Mr. Ibadi within hours of his nomination and urged him to form a new, more diverse Cabinet “as soon as possible,” the president said.
The White House, which rarely describes the foreign side of high-level phone conversations, reported that Mr. Ibadi said he intends “to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and building a better future for Iraqis from all communities.”
On Monday, U.S. fighter jets carried out airstrikes on four checkpoints manned by Sunni militants in northwest Iraq near where thousands of minority Yazidi refugees have been trapped on a mountain to escape violence.
The U.S. military said in a statement Monday that the strikes outside the city of Sinjar either destroyed or damaged the checkpoints and nearby vehicles that were used by the Islamic State militant group.
At least one of the vehicles destroyed was a Humvee truck, and another was an armed personnel carrier. The militants have been using U.S. military equipment that they seized from Iraqi army forces.
A senior Pentagon official, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., said the airstrikes and other U.S. efforts are not a solution to defeat the militants permanently.
“We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL’s operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward” the town of Irbil, Gen. Mayville said. “However, these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria.”
The Islamic State is “very well organized,” well equipped and has been strategically coordinating their operations, according to Gen. Mayville. As the airstrikes continue, the U.S. government remains “gripped by the immediacy of the crisis,” he said.
The Pentagon has conducted 17 airstrikes in northern Iraq since the campaign began Friday. U.S. military aircraft ramped up delivery of humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Yazidi ethno-religious minorities, who have been trapped for more than a week on a mountaintop.
While Mr. Obama called on Iraqis to form a new government swiftly, Mr. Maliki threatened to make that job more difficult. In a midnight speech, Mr. Maliki said he was filing a suit against the president for neglecting to name him prime minister by Sunday’s deadline, and he all but demanded he be renominated.
Mr. Maliki deployed his elite security forces in the streets of Baghdad, partially closed two main streets — popular spots for pro-government and antigovernment rallies — as hundreds of his supporters took to the streets.
“We are with you, Maliki,” they shouted, waving posters of the incumbent premier, singing and dancing.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned Mr. Maliki not to interfere with the formation of a new government, saying it would lead to a cutoff of international support.
“There should be no use of force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq,” Mr. Kerry said on a visit to Sydney, Australia. “We believe that the government-formation process is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”
Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated bloc won the most parliament seats in April elections, and he sees himself as rightfully keeping the post. Critics say Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, contributed to the crisis by monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Mohammed Ogeili, a lawmaker loyal to Mr. Maliki, rejected the nomination of Mr. Ibadi, arguing that this move “runs against the constitution” because Mr. Maliki’s party is the largest bloc, and the National Alliance, a coalition of Shiite groups, has no right to present any candidate.
“This decision would lead the country to a big problem, and the president bears full responsibility for this situation,” he said.
Mr. Ibadi was named a deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament last month in an effort to break a political deadlock. He lived in exile in London during Saddam Hussein’s rule and returned to Iraq in 2003.
Mr. Maliki is to remain as a caretaker leader for the next 30 days and to serve as commander in chief of Iraq’s security forces.
Mr. Obama said forming the new Iraqi leadership faces a “difficult task.”
“It has to regain the confidence of its citizens by governing inclusively and by taking steps to demonstrate its resolve,” he said. “The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people. I’m sure that there will be difficult days ahead.”
Even before Mr. Ibadi can form a new Cabinet, among the most urgent challenges in Iraq is the rescue of tens of thousands of ethnic minority Iraqis trapped on a mountain by the militants. Mr. Obama said the U.S. deployed a USAID disaster response team Monday to help distribute humanitarian aid to some of those displaced people.
“Some have begun to escape their perch on that mountain, and we’re working with international partners to develop options to bring them to safety,” Mr. Obama said.
In recent weeks, Kurdish officials have repeatedly asked the Obama administration for ammunition, machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles, vehicles and other weapons to battle the Sunni militants. American officials said that the Pentagon was not supplying the arms, suggesting that the program was part of a covert effort that enlisted the support of other countries.
“They are getting some arming from various sources,” said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing sensitive diplomatic issues. The official declined to provide details on what weapons were being provided or who was providing them.
U.S. airstrikes have reinvigorated Iraqi Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State, and on Sunday, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters retook two towns — Makhmour and al-Gweir, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Irbil — from the Sunni militants in what was one of their first victories after weeks of retreat.
The successes were balanced out, however, by news of a defeat in the far eastern Diyala province, where Kurdish forces were driven out of the town of Jalula after fierce fighting against the militants. The militants blasted their way into the town using a truck bomb followed up with several suicide bombers on foot, said a police officer and an army official, adding that at least 14 Kurdish fighters were killed.
• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.