President Obama pledged support for Iraq’s new, contested prime minister, underscoring the U.S. push to persuade current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to step down.
The nomination of a new prime minister, Haider Abadi, a Shiite and member of Maliki’s political party, “is an important step toward forming a new government that can unite,” Obama said in a brief statement from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
The hastily arranged statement was part of an intense U.S. effort to pressure Maliki to step aside. U.S. officials are trying to make way for a successor who might better unite the country against Sunni militants with the group Islamic State, who have seized much of western and northern Iraq.
Obama said he had called Abadi to express his support. Earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden, who has been the administration’s point person on Iraq, also called Abadi.
Maliki, however, has refused to recognize Abadi. The prime minister contends that Abadi's nomination by President Fouad Massoum came after the deadline and violated the constitution.
The Iraqi constitutional crisis has complicated Obama's recent decision to authorize military intervention against the Islamic State militants. Last week, when Obama announced a U.S. air campaign against the militants, the White House had expressed optimism about a political transition underway in Baghdad. Only a few days later, that process is locked in a potentially dangerous stalemate.
As he did in originally announcing that he had authorized airstrikes, Obama said the U.S. military intervention was “limited,” with the goals of helping the autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq protect its capital, Irbil, and providing humanitarian assistance to thousands of people who have fled the advance of the militants and taken shelter in the mountains near the town of Sinjar.
Obama also indicated modest progress on that second goal. The displace Iraqis, mostly members of the Yazidi religious sect, have been without secure supplies of food and water for days.
“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,” Obama said. He said Britain, France and other countries were working to help provide assistance.
“And meanwhile, our aircraft remain positioned to strike any terrorist forces around the mountain who threaten the safety of these families,” he said.
As he has repeatedly in recent days, Obama sought to reassure Americans that the new intervention in Iraq would not spiral into a broader commitment. He has said he will not put U.S. combat troops back in Iraq.
On Monday, he said that “there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government, one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis and one that can unify the country's fight against ISIL,” the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has been used by the Islamic State.
The Obama administration once supported Maliki but now views his rule as partially responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. Maliki has alienated Sunnis by concentrating power and patronage in the hands of his fellow Shiites, imprisoning some Sunni leaders and driving others into exile.
Over the weekend, U.S. officials had released several statements supportive of President Massoum, and diplomats in Washington and Baghdad encouraged Iraqi politicians to cull the field of potential prime ministers to select an alternative to Maliki. Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament, was selected early Monday.
Earlier Monday, Biden called Massoum to offer his support, telling him that he had the United States' "full support for his role as guaranteer of the Iraqi constitution," according to a White House statement.
The White House description of the vice president's call to Abadi said the prime minister-designate told Biden that he would move “expeditiously” to form a more inclusive government “capable of countering the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The two officials agreed to stay in touch, the statement said.
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Aug. 11, 3:02 p.m.: This story has been updated with the comments from President Obama.
This story was originally published at 11:23 a.m.