THE LEVANT – Iraqis and foreign brokers breathed a sigh of relief Friday after Nuri al-Maliki dropped his bid for a third term as prime minister, a move seen as vital to tackling a spiralling military and humanitarian crisis.
A day after Washington claimed its air strikes averted genocide in northern Iraq, aid groups grappled with the scope of the disaster which saw a jihadist-led blitz displace hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of days.
Some fear that even with the departure of Maliki, a divisive two-term prime minister, the type of significant changes needed to reunite the fractious country will not be made.
Maliki bowed to huge domestic and international pressure on Thursday, throwing in the towel after an acrimonious rearguard action to stay in office, and backing his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, a fellow member of the Shiite Dawa party.
“I announce before you today… the withdrawal of my candidacy in favour of the brother Doctor Haidar al-Abadi,” he said in a televised address, with Abadi at his side.
His decision was swiftly welcomed by the United States and the United Nations.
“Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the swift formation of “an inclusive, broad-based government ready to immediately tackle these pressing issues.”
The decision of Maliki, 64, to turn the page on eight years in power was welcomed at home as well, but some said little will change.
“Maliki stepping down is a positive move to end the crisis,” said Baghdad resident Salah Abu al-Qassem.
But the 38-yeard-old added that Abadi and Maliki are “both from same school.”
“I do not believe that changing the government will be a solution for Iraq,” said Mohammed Majid, 53, a resident of the city of Samarra, north of the capital.
“We the Sunnis have been marginalised for 10 years by the Dawa party,” he said.
Maliki, who rose from anonymous exile to become a powerful and feared ruler, said he was stepping aside to “facilitate the progress of the political process and the formation of the new government.”
But while he defended his record at the helm, critics say his divisive policies have alienated and radicalised the Sunni minority, most of whose heartland was overrun by extremist fighters from the Islamic State (IS) in June.
The jihadist group has since declared a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, hunted down religious minorities, destroyed holy sites and seized the country’s largest dam and several oil fields.
The devastating militant advance has also displaced hundreds of thousands of people and posed an immediate existential threat to the world’s seventh oil producer by de facto redrawing its borders along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Iraqi forces folded when IS forces moved in and while the Kurdish peshmerga initially fared better, the US arms that retreating federal troops left behind made the jihadists a formidable foe.
Obama said Thursday a week of US air strikes had broken the siege of a northern mountain where civilians had been hiding from jihadists for more than 10 days.
The ordeal of tens of thousands of people, mostly from the Yazidi minority, was one of the most dramatic chapters of the devastating two-month conflict and one of the reasons Obama ordered air strikes in Iraq, three years after pulling his troops out.
“We helped save many innocent lives. Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain and it’s unlikely we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain,” Obama said.
But the air strikes, first launched on August 8, would go on, he said.
EU ministers began meeting Friday in Brussels to seek unanimous approval for the shipment of arms to Iraqi Kurds fighting jihadists.
And Britain said it would “favourably consider” arming Kurdish forces.
Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into Iraq’s Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, many with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Shabak and other people who have been displaced in recent weeks have little prospect of returning home any time soon.
Washington has ruled out sending troops to combat and the fight-back is being led by Kurdish forces who, despite Western arms deliveries, have so far contained IS fighters rather than reclaimed large tracts of territory.