IRBIL, Iraq (CNN) – Iraq’s president nominated a new prime minister on Monday, further complicating the country’s intense power struggle amid a dire humanitarian crisis and a militant threat strong enough to draw U.S. air power back to the fray.
In a ceremony attended by key members of the main Shiite bloc in Parliament, President Fuad Masum nominated Haider al-Abadi to succeed a defiant Nuri al-Maliki, who had earlier vowed to hang on to power.
It wasn’t clear what impact the situation would have on the country, which is already torn by a threat from Islamist militants so brutal that they crucify people and brag about it online.
But in a sign that al-Maliki wouldn’t go quietly, he later appeared with mostly junior members of his party who announced that they would contest Masum’s decision in court.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called al-Abadi to congratulate him, the White House said.
Al-Abadi “expressed his intent to move expeditiously to form a broad-based, inclusive government capable of countering the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS), and building a better future for Iraqis from all communities,” the White House said in a statement. Biden “relayed President Obama’s congratulations and restated his commitment to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government, particularly in its fight against ISIL.”
Biden also called Masum “to discuss the ongoing government formation process in Baghdad and to express the United States’ full support for his role as guarantor of the Iraqi Constitution,” the White House said, adding that Biden congratulated Masum on reaching a “key milestone” by nominating a new prime minister.
Obama has pushed for “a new, more inclusive government that will be able to address the legitimate concerns of all Iraqis,” the White House noted.
U.S. President Barack Obama is on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
Here’s where things stand after a few days of dizzying developments:
Tension in Baghdad
The new Prime Minister-designate, al-Abadi, is the deputy speaker of the Iraqi Parliament and a former aide to al-Maliki.
Masum nominated the prominent Shiite politician for the prime minister’s job on Monday despite al-Maliki’s pronouncement earlier in the day that he intends to stay in office for a third term.
Al-Abadi will have 30 days to form a new government before he can formally take office.
Al-Abadi appears to be backed by leading members of the leading parliamentary coalition — including Iraq’s foreign minister and the Dawa party’s spokesman — who appeared with him at the ceremony formalizing his nomination.
Whether al-Maliki would use force to retain power remains unknown.
On Sunday, Iraqi forces and tanks surged into some Baghdad neighborhoods as a wave of troops swarmed Baghdad’s green zone, the secure area where many government buildings and the U.S. Embassy are located, two Iraqi police officials said.
Exactly what led to the surge remains unclear. But some believe the beefed-up military presence was part of a power struggle between al-Maliki and Masum.
Kirk Sowell, author of “Inside Iraqi Politics,” said the end of al-Maliki’s eight-year rule appears near.
“Potentially, I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that Maliki would try some sort of coup,” Sowell said. “I would exclude the possibility that it might succeed.”
Al-Abadi’s appointment met with international approval.
British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond welcomed the move, as did Nikolay Mladenov, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Iraq. Mladenov urged swift movement toward appointment of a new government.
“It is important now for all political groups in Parliament to cooperate in forming an inclusive government that reflects the wishes of the Iraqi people for security, prosperity and democracy,” Mladenov said.
U.S. State Department official Brett McGurk tweeted Monday that the U.S. was also happy with the news.
“This is an important additional step in the government formation process as set forth in the Iraqi constitution,” McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for near-Eastern affairs, wrote on Twitter.
Airstrikes against ISIS
An initial assessment shows that several days of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets have dispersed the group’s fighters and forced them to travel more discreetly, a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly told CNN on Monday. The airstrikes also appear to have at least temporarily stopped the militant advance on Irbil, the official said.
“They had been acting with impunity,” the official said. “Now they realize they cannot travel up and down the roads in large groups.”
U.S. aircraft struck ISIS targets again on Sunday, hitting five targets, including armed vehicles and a mortar position, U.S. Central Command said.
Iraqi officials said U.S. airstrikes Saturday killed 16 ISIS fighters, and an Iraqi airstrike in Sinjar killed an additional 45 ISIS fighters, Iraq state media reported.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized targeted attacks to protect not only Iraqi minorities from ISIS’s killing rampage but Americans stationed in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.
“I’ve never seen Iraq so bad — ever,” CNN national security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer said Monday, before the latest political developments.
In their effort to create a caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS fighters have slaughtered civilians as they take over cities in both countries.
In Iraq, one of the most dire humanitarian nightmares is unfolding on Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of Yazidis have been trapped.
Yazidis are part of one the world’s oldest monotheistic religious minorities and have been targeted by ISIS. Their religion is considered a pre-Islamic sect that draws from Christianity, Judaism and the ancient monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism.
Dozens of people, including 60 children, have died on the mountain, where the Yazidis are battling extreme temperatures, hunger and thirst. On Sunday, Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights spokesman Kamil Amin said it was possible that as many as 500 Yazidis had been killed. The ministry had also heard reports — but had not confirmed — that some had been buried alive.
Although the situation remains dire, U.S. officials believe they have stopped ISIS expeditions on the mountain, according to the U.S. official who spoke to CNN about the effect of airstrikes.
“It’s difficult to be accurate about these numbers, but initially we have reported 500 Iraqi Yazidis have died from either ISIS direct killings or from starvation and dehydration,” Amin said. “We have heard some reports from activists and local journalists that some families were buried alive.”
CNN is unable to authenticate reports about the Yazidi death toll or the allegation that some were buried alive.
But some hope emerged Sunday when 20,000 Yazidi Iraqis who had been trapped on Mount Sinjar were rescued and taken to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Amin said Kurdish forces were able to break the siege by ISIS and help thousands of stranded Yazidis board trucks, which drove them to the Syrian border town of Hasaka. They were then driven north along the Syrian-Iraqi border to Dohuk in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region.
On Sunday night, the U.S. military made a fourth airdrop of food and water to Iraqis stranded on Mount Sinjar, according to U.S. Central Command. In total, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 74,000 meals and more than 15,000 gallons of fresh drinking water, Centcom said.
Britain and France have said they will join the United States in the airdrops. A British C-130 cargo plane delivered aid to Iraq on Sunday, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.
Iraqi security forces have been able to airlift about 100 to 150 people a day off Mount Sinjar, said Marzio Babille of UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency. But time is running out for many who cannot reach airdropped supplies.