Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down Thursday, ending a stalemate that had worsened Baghdad’s political chaos in recent weeks and crippled the nation’s ability to quell a surge of extremist Sunni militants.
Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, had been widely blamed for fanning the flames of the insurgency by monopolizing power and alienating Iraq’s Sunni population during his eight years in office. He agreed to step aside and support a replacement called for by members of his own political alliance, news agencies and Iraq’s state television reported on Thursday night.
While the development eased fears that a military coup may unfold in Iraq’s capital, uncertainty remained over whether the nominee for prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, himself a Shiite, will be able to quickly form a government that can address the security crisis.
In Washington, National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice described the development as “encouraging,” and said the White House hopes it will help to unite Iraqis in the fight against the Islamic State.
The Obama administration, along with several U.S. allies, have spent recent weeks calling for the formation of a new Iraqi government that is more inclusive of the nation’s Sunni tribes, some of which are said to have offered support to the Islamic State in areas north and west of Baghdad.
Without resistance from the tribes, the al Qaeda-inspired extremists have seized a wide swath of territory in Iraq and Syria. The resulting humanitarian crisis prompted President Obama to authorize U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State positions, along with humanitarian air drops for Iraqis surrounded by the extremists.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama declared that U.S. forces had broken a siege by Islamic State fighters against ethnic minorities, who had sought refuge on a mountain in northern Iraq, and said it won’t be necessary to conduct a rescue operation.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved,” Mr. Obama said. “We broke the [militants’] siege of Mount Sinjar and we helped save many innocent lives.”
Administration officials initially expressed concern that the U.S. military might be required to evacuate tens of thousands of people of the Yazidi minority group from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled from an onslaught by the militants.
But Mr. Obama said Thursday that a team of U.S. special operations troops who investigated conditions on Mount Sinjar on Wednesday had determined the Yazidis are now in better condition than had been thought.
“They found that food and water have been reaching those in need,” the president said, adding that thousands of Yazidis have been evacuating the mountain at night with the help of Kurdish fighters in the region.
Mr. Obama said that U.S. military forces will continue to conduct airstrikes against militants aligned with the Islamic State, whose leader declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the region in late June.
The Obama administration has said its strategy for confronting the extremists centers on a plan to bolster and rebuild the capabilities of Iraq’s military, the northern units of which essentially dissolved in the face of the Islamic State surge two months ago.
The strategy has been hindered by the political crisis in Baghdad, and Obama administration officials have suggested they are withholding U.S. financial and military support from the Iraqis until the nation’s parliament moves to form a more inclusive government.
Washington’s posturing has coincided with a political struggle in the Iraqi capital, where Mr. al-Maliki had struggled for weeks to stay in power for a third, four-year term as prime minister.
A coalition led by Mr. al-Maliki’s party won the most votes in national elections in May, but the political process has stalled amid infighting and attempts by al-Maliki opponents to push him out.
Pressure intensified this week when Iraqi President Fouad Massoum nominated Mr. al-Abadi to replace Mr. al-Maliki and form a new government. Mr. Al-Maliki refused to step aside, saying the nomination violates the constitution.
But in a meeting Thursday, he agreed to endorse Mr. al-Abadi, according a report by The Associated Press.
The U.N. Security Council urged Mr. al-Abadi to work swiftly to form “an inclusive government that represents all segments of the Iraqi population and that contributes to finding a viable and sustainable solution to the country’s current challenges.”