Iraq's embattled Nouri al-Maliki has stepped down as prime minister, caving in to international and domestic pressure to hand over power to a rival politician.
According to AP, Maliki made the announcement on national television late Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Islamic Dawa Party, including rival Haider al-Abadi. He said he was stepping aside in favor of his "brother," in order to "facilitate the political process and government formation."
Maliki said his decision reflected a desire to "safeguard the high interests of the country," adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed.
In a meeting of his party earlier Thursday, Maliki agreed to endorse Abadi, two senior lawmakers from his State of Law parliamentary bloc - Hussein al-Maliki and Khalaf Abdul-Samad - told the Associated Press. The two said Maliki also agreed to drop a suit before the constitutional court challenging Abadi's nomination.
‘Country must unite to face dangers’
Al-Abadi urged his countrymen to unite in the face of dangerous challenges and cautioned that the road ahead would be tough.
On his Facebook page, Abadi said he would not make unrealistic promises but he encouraged Iraqis to work together to strengthen the country, which is facing a sectarian civil war, Reuters reported.
Ayatollah Sistani backs new PM
Iraq's most influential religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threw his weight behind the new prime minister and said the transition was a rare opportunity to resolve political and security crises.
Underscoring the urgency of containing a sectarian conflict fueled by ISIL terrorists, Sistani urged the military to hoist only Iraq's flag to avoid factionalism.
Sunni leaders open to joining new government
Tribal leaders and preachers from Iraq's Sunni heartland would be willing to join the new administration if certain conditions are met, a spokesman for the group told Reuters Friday.
The spokesman, Taha Mohammad al-Hamdoon, said Sunni representatives in Anbar and other provinces had drawn up a list of demands to be delivered to the moderate Shia Abadi through Sunni politicians.
He called for government and militia forces to suspend hostilities to allow space for talks.
"It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing," said Hamdoon in a telephone interview.
The premier-designate Abadi, a veteran Shia lawmaker, now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians. The country's major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army seems unable to regain territory in the north and west taken by militants from the Islamic State group.
Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolizing power.
The United States, the UN and a broad array of political factions in Iraq had backed Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) extremists who have captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.
The White House commended Maliki's move and expressed hope that the power shift "can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people" against the threat from militants, national security adviser Susan Rice said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move "sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq."
The UN Security Council urged 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."
UN pursues bid to stifle rebels
Galvanized by the brutality of militants marauding through Iraq, the United Nations Security Council appeared set to approve a resolution on Friday aimed at severely weakening them by choking their sources of money, weapons and foreign recruits.
The resolution, which demands that the militants “disarm and disband with immediate effect,” would authorize the use of economic or military force to ensure compliance, the strongest tool at the Council’s disposal under the United Nations Charter.
Despite the history of bitter differences among Council members over how to address the war in Syria, the Council appeared to have reached a shared determination to act in neighboring Iraq, where a extremist movement has created a political and humanitarian crisis. The final draft of the resolution, made available to The New York Times, was expected to be approved by all 15 members.