Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared more isolated Tuesday as he continued his battle to remain in power while Iraqi politicians and the international community rallied behind Prime Minister–designate Haider al-Abadi, a Shia who could be a more unifying figure.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Abadi to work quickly to form an inclusive government and said the U.S. is prepared to offer Iraq significant additional aid in the fight against the Islamic State armed group. Later on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
Underscoring a convergence of interests in Iraq in a normally hostile relationship between Washington and Tehran, the head of Iran’s National Security Council congratulated Abadi on his nomination. Shia-majority Iran has been alarmed by the rise of Sunni militants across Syria and Iraq.
The power struggle in Baghdad comes as Iraq is battling militants from Al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State in the north and the west. The onslaught by the armed fighters, who have captured large chunks of Iraqi territory since June, is Iraq’s worst crisis since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
On Monday, Abadi, the deputy speaker of parliament from Maliki's Shia Dawa party, was selected by President Fouad Massoum to be the new prime minister and was given 30 days to present a new government to lawmakers for approval.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Abadi's nomination a "promising step forward" and urged "all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process."
But Maliki, who has been in power for eight years, defiantly rejected the nomination, insisting it "runs against the constitutional procedures," and accused the United States of siding with political forces "who have violated the constitution."
In Sydney on Tuesday, Kerry said the United States "stands ready to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government … Without any question, we are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options."
Another 130 U.S. troops arrived in Iraq on Tuesday on what the Pentagon described as a temporary mission to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis facing thousands of displaced Iraqi civilians trapped on Sinjar Mountain.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deployment in remarks to Marines at Camp Pendleton, California.
"This is not a combat boots on the ground kind of operation," Hagel said. "We're not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in in Iraq," he added, referring to the eight-year war that cost more than 4,400 U.S. lives and soured the American public on military involvement in Iraq.
Another defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide additional details on the sensitive mission, said the extra troops are Marines and special operations forces whose mission is to assess the situation in the Sinjar area and to develop additional humanitarian assistance options beyond current U.S. efforts there.
The U.S. has already increased its role in fighting back the Sunni extremists who have threatened the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Over the weekend U.S. airstrikes helped the Kurds achieve one of their first victories after weeks of retreating. Senior American officials said Monday that U.S. intelligence agencies are directly arming the Kurds who are battling the militants.
The development reflected a shift in Washington's policy of working only through the central government in Baghdad.
Abadi's nomination was a major breakthrough in the political deadlock that followed the parliamentary elections in April. It shows that Maliki — who has demanded that he retain his post for a third term because his bloc won most seats in the assembly — has lost some support with the main coalition of Shia parties.
His critics say he contributed to Iraq's political crisis by monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Abadi, the minister of communications from 2003 to ’04, pledged to form a government to "protect the Iraqi people." He was nominated after receiving the majority of votes from lawmakers in the Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shia parties.
The U.S. airstrikes, which began last week, have reinvigorated Iraqi Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State. On Sunday, Kurdish peshmerga fighters retook two towns from the Sunni militants. But on Monday in Diyala province in the east, Kurdish forces were driven from the town of Jalula after fierce fighting with the militants.
On Tuesday an Iraqi helicopter delivering food and water to thousands of people stranded in the Sinjar Mountains crashed, Kurdish forces said. The New York Times reported that the pilot of the helicopter was killed in the crash and a Times journalist who was on board was injured.
The European Union said Tuesday it wants to "bring vital assistance to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped by the fighting" and was increasing its aid by 5 million euros ($7 million), to a new total of about $23 million for this year.
EU Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said the funding will help "vulnerable Iraqis, including the minority groups besieged in the mountains of Sinjar" and the communities hosting a growing number of refugees.
Al Jazeera and wire services