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US ready to help new Iraq PM, Iran welcomes choice

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s new prime minister-designate won swift endorsements from uneasy mutual allies the United States and Iran on Tuesday as he called on political leaders to end crippling feuds that have let jihadists seize a third of the country.

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Haider al-Abadi still faces opposition closer to home, where his Shi’ite party colleague Nuri 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.

However, Shi’ite militia and army commanders long loyal to Maliki signalled 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.

Sunni neighbours Turkey and Saudi Arabia also welcomed Abadi’s appointment.

A statement from 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 Shi’ite areas of Baghdad – a kind of attack that has become increasingly routine in recent months.

As Western powers and international aid agencies considered further help for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes and under threat from the Sunni militants of the Islamic State near the Syrian border, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would consider requests for military and other assistance once Abadi forms a government to unite the country.

However, U.S. officials said the Obama administration was already considering sending more military advisers to Iraq. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several said a decision to send at least 70 extra military personnel was likely later on Tuesday, although a final decision had not yet been made.

Underscoring the convergence of interest in Iraq that marks the normally hostile relationship between Washington and Iran, senior Iranian officials congratulated Abadi on his nomination, three months after a parliamentary election left Maliki’s bloc as the biggest in the legislature. Like Western powers, Shi’ite Iran is alarmed by Sunni militants’ hold 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 favours a cohesive, integrated and secure Iraq,” he said, adding an apparent appeal to Maliki to concede.

Abadi himself, long exiled in Britain, is seen as a far less polarising, sectarian figure than Maliki, who is also from the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party. Abadi appears to have the blessing of Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite clergy, a major force since U.S. troops toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqi state television said Abadi “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”.

One politician close to Abadi told Reuters that the prime minister-designate had begun contacting leaders of major groups to sound them out on forming a new cabinet. The president said on Monday he hoped he would succeed within the next month.

A statement from a major Shi’ite militia group, Asaib Ahl Haq, which has backed Maliki and reinforced the Iraqi army as it fell back from the north in June, called for an end to the legalistic arguments of the kind used by Maliki to justify his retaining power and urged “self-restraint by all sides”.

It said leaders should “give priority to the public interest over the private” and respect clerical guidance – a clear reference to indications that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani favours the removal of Maliki to address the national crisis- Reuters

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