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Obama, Iran both throw support to new Iraqi P.M.-designate

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Iraq's new prime minister-designate won pledges of extra military and economic support from the Obama administration Tuesday, while Iran also endorsed the nominee, who called for an end to the sectarian feuds that have allowed Islamist extremists to seize a third of the country.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. is willing to provide more cash and military equipment to Iraq if Haider al-Ibadi can quickly form a new, more diverse government in Baghdad.

"The U.S. does stand ready to fully support a new inclusive Iraqi government," Mr. Kerry said. "Without any question we are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government."

But Mr. Kerry, in Australia for diplomatic talks, said the U.S. support would stop short of sending any ground combat troops.

"There will be no reintroduction of American combat forces into Iraq," he said. "Nobody, I think, is looking forwards to a return to the road that we've traveled."

A key figure in the U.S.-aided effort to beat back the militants, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, spoke to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Tuesday and "expressed his support" for Mr. Ibadi, the White House said. He pledged his willingness "to bring Iraq's different communities together to confront the nation's political, economic, and security challenges."

Meanwhile senior officials in Iran, normally hostile to Washington, also congratulated Mr. Ibadi on his nomination. Like the West, Shiite Iran is alarmed by the Sunni militants' rise 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 favors a cohesive, integrated and secure Iraq."

Sunni neighbors Turkey and Saudi Arabia also welcomed Mr. Ibadi's appointment.

Iraqi state television said Mr. Ibadi "called on all political powers who believe in the constitution and democracy to unite efforts and close ranks to respond to Iraq's great challenges." He faces a deadline of forming a new Cabinet within 30 days.

Mr. Ibadi still faces opposition at home, where his Shiite party colleague Nouri 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.

But Shiite militia and army commanders long loyal to Mr. Maliki signaled 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.

A statement from Mr. Maliki's office said he met senior security officials and army and police commanders to urge them "not to interfere in the political crisis." At least 17 people were killed in two car bombings in Shiite areas of Baghdad — a kind of attack that has become increasingly routine in recent months.

The new U.S. military and humanitarian missions, including air strikes, have focused on northern Iraq. U.S. officials have said the Kurds are receiving direct military aid, and U.S. and British aircraft have dropped food and other supplies to terrified civilians, including from the Yazidi religious minority, who have taken refuge in remote mountains.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that 20,000 to 30,000 Yazidis may still be sheltering on the arid Mount Sinjar.

President Obama, vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, spoke by phone Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper about Iraq and they agreed to provide "additional, immediate humanitarian assistance, and to continue developing options to secure the safety of the civilians on Mount Sinjar," the White House said.

Some Republicans in Congress are urging the administration to expand the new military mission against the Islamic State, saying the group's territorial gains demonstrate that the U.S. can't wait several months for a new Iraqi government to revamp its own security forces.

"We need much more sustained air attacks, not just in Kurdistan, but throughout the ISIS area," said Rep. Peter King, New York Republican. "Find out where they're deployed and go after them [and] make greater use of the Iraqi army. It could still take months before the Iraqi government is functioning."

Mr. King, speaking on MSNBC, called Mr. Ibadi "certainly far superior to Maliki" but said the limited U.S. airstrikes will not blunt the gains by the militants.

"We're focused on a very small part of the ISIS-controlled area," he said. "As far as the overall area, which is larger than the country of Jordan, we're having no impact on ISIS and they're moving forward."

It remains unclear how much support Mr. Maliki, who remains acting premier, has to obstruct the formation of a new administration. One senior government official said that his fears of a military standoff in the capital had eased as police and troops had reduced their presence on the streets.

"Yesterday, Baghdad was very tense," he said. "But key military commanders have since contacted the president and said they would support him and not Maliki."

In both Shi'ite and Sunni districts of the capital, many spoke of a sense of relief and cautious hope for change.

"I'm very happy Maliki will not be prime minister again. I hate him; he killed my sons and broke my heart," said 68-year-old Um Aqeel as she walked in the Karrada shopping district.

Saying two of her sons had died in violence in the past year — one while serving as a soldier in the north in May — she said: "Maliki knows only the language of war and never believes in peace, just like Saddam. Yesterday when I heard he was out I felt justice has been done by God, and my two beloved sons who were killed because of him will rest in peace."

But as Um Aqeel offered sweets to passers-by in the mainly Shi'ite area to share her satisfaction, one man, Murtadha al-Waeli, warned her angrily that she was wrong to celebrate.

"Soon you will all regret Maliki's going," he said. "It was he who built a strong army. Iraq will fall apart after Maliki, and we will lose the battle with the terrorists. Shi'ites will pay a high price for losing Maliki. Just wait and see."

In the mainly Sunni district of Adhamiya, where many people have long resented what they saw as Mr. Maliki's determination to keep Sunnis out of positions of influence, cafe owner Khalid Saad said he hoped Abadi would learn a lesson from the past by keeping his distance from Iran and leaving Sunnis in peace.

"Maliki treated us Sunni like aliens," he said. "We hope Abadi will learn from Maliki's fatal mistakes and pull the country back from its sea of troubles."

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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