BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's new president on Monday snubbed the powerful incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and nominated the deputy parliament speaker to form the new government, raising fears of more infighting in the government as country faces the threat of Sunni militants in the north.
Al-Maliki's Dawa Party rejected the nominee, Haider al-Ibadi, as al-Maliki deployed elite security forces loyal to him in the streets of Baghdad to close two main avenues and hundreds of his supporters held a rally, raising fears that he may use force to stay in power.
The mounting political showdown comes as the United States beefed up its role in fighting back Sunni Muslim radicals whose dramatic expansion is threatening the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Senior U.S. officials said the Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to the Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State group.
U.S. warplanes carried out new strikes Monday, hitting a militant convoy moving to attack Kurdish forces defending the autonomous zone's capital, Irbil. American strikes in recent days helped bring one of the Kurds first victories after weeks of retreat as peshmerga fighters over the weekend recaptured two towns near Irbil.
But the political wrangling in Baghdad adds new instability as the country tries to deal with the Islamic State group, which has overrun much of the north and west.
Al-Maliki has been insisting for weeks that he has the right to stay as prime minister, even as many of his fellow Shiites push for his replacement, accusing him of monopolizing power. Other criticis accuse al-Maliki of pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite political agenda that has helped fuel the Sunni insurgency.
Al-Ibadi was nominated for the prime minister's post Monday by the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties that includes al-Maliki's State of Law bloc. Then in a televised address, President Fouad Massoum officially picked al-Ibadi to form a new government, giving him 30 days to do so and present it to parliament for approval.
Hours earlier, al-Maliki delivered a surprise speech at midnight accusing Massoum of blocking his reappointment as prime minister and carrying out "a coup against the constitution and the political process."
Al-Maliki's Dawa party issued a televised statement rejecting the new nominee, saying he did not have the support of the party.
"Al-Ibadi represents only himself," said party spokesman Khalaf Abdul-Samad surrounded by stone-faced party members, including al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki's backers in the streets waved posters of the incumbent, singing and dancing and chanting, "We are with you, al-Maliki."
Al-Ibadi is a British-educated lawmaker with a background in electrical engineering and a member of al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa party. He has been closely involved in previous governments.
His nomination by the Shiite alliance brought into the open the long-simmering revolt among Shiite parties against al-Maliki, the Shiite politician who has been in the post for eight years.
The powerful Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement controls dozens of seats in parliament, expressed his support for al-Ibadi's nomination, describing it as the "first sign" the country was headed back to safety.
"I think that this nomination will be an important start in order to end the crisis that the people are undergoing such as security and service problems," he said in a statement.
Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker with the Sadrist movement, cautioned the military, which includes units directly loyal to al-Maliki, not to intervene.
"The security forces and government bodies belong to the Iraqi people, and they should not interfere in politics," he said when asked whether al-Maliki might use force to stay in power.
The new political crisis in Baghdad has raised concerns abroad.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. stands "absolutely squarely behind President Massoum," and called for restraint. "There should be no use force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq."
Kerry said a new government "is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq," and that "our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters."
The U.N. special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said Iraq's "special forces should refrain from actions that may be seen as interference in matters related to the democratic transfer of political authority."
Britain has expressed support for Ibadi's nomination and Vice President Joe Biden called Massoum to express U.S. support and commend him on the nomination.
The American move to directly arm the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about the Islamic State group's gains. The officials wouldn't say which U.S. agency is providing the arms or what weapons are being sent, but one official said it isn't the Pentagon. The CIA has historically done similar quiet arming operations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly.
On Sunday, Kurdish peshemerga fighters retook two towns from the militants— Makhmour and al-Gweir, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) from Irbil.
The successes, however, were balanced out by news of a defeat in eastern Diyala province where Kurdish forces were driven out of the town of Jalula after fierce fighting against Sunni militants.
The militants blasted their way into the town at midnight using a truck bomb followed up with several suicide bombers on foot, said a police officer and a army official, adding that at least 14 Kurdish fighters were killed.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The journalists' rights group Reporters Without Borders said Monday that a Turkish journalist — Leyla Yildizhan, who is Kurdish and uses the pseudonym Deniz Firat — was killed by a mortar Friday in fighting between peshmerga and militants.
The militant advances and the political turmoil has deepened Iraq's humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis recently joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Matthew Lee in Sydney contributed to this report.