BAGHDAD, Iraq — Nouri al-Maliki finally bowed to pressure within Iraq and beyond Thursday and stepped down as prime minister, paving the way for a new coalition that world and regional powers hope can quash a Sunni Islamist insurgency that threatens Baghdad.
Mr. Maliki ended eight years of often-divisive, sectarian rule and endorsed fellow Shiite Haider al-Abadi in a televised speech during which he stood next to his successor and spoke of the grave threat from the Islamic State’s Sunni militants, who have taken over large areas of northern Iraq.
“I announce before you today, to ease the movement of the political process and the formation of the new government, the withdrawal of my candidacy in favor of brother Dr. Haider al-Abadi,” Mr. Maliki said.
Mr. Maliki's decision was likely to please Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein's iron rule but was sidelined by Mr. Maliki, a relative unknown when he came to power in 2006 with U.S. backing. Mr. Maliki had resisted months of pressure to step down from Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow Shiites, Shiite regional power Iran and the United States. He had insisted on his right to form a new government based on the results of a parliamentary election in late April. His stubborn insistence stirred concerns of a violent power struggle in Baghdad.
But in recent days, as his support was obviously crumbling, he told his military commanders to stay out of politics.
On Wednesday, his own Dawa political party publicly threw its support behind Mr. Abadi and asked lawmakers to work with him to form a new government. And Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered his personal endorsement to Mr. Abadi, distancing himself from Mr. Maliki.
U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice commended Mr. Maliki for his decision to support Mr. Abadi, and she noted that a wide range of leaders from across the Iraqi political spectrum had committed to help Mr. Abadi form a broad, inclusive government.
“These are encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Ms. Rice said in a statement, referring to the militant group also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “The United States remains committed to a strong partnership with Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Two key U.S. lawmakers, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., hailed Mr. Maliki's decision to step down as “necessary and positive.”
Mr. Abadi is seen as a moderate Shiite with a decent chance of improving ties with Sunnis. But he is faced with halting the advance of the Islamic State, which has overrun large areas of Iraq.
Before Mr. Maliki’s announcement, a leading figure in the Sunni minority said in an interview that he had been promised U.S. help to fight the Islamic State militants. Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, governor of the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, told Reuters that his request for help, made in meetings with U.S. diplomats and a senior military officer, included air support against the militants, who have a tight grip on large parts of his desert province and northwestern Iraq. Such a move could revive cooperation between Sunni tribes, the Shiite-led authorities and U.S. forces that was credited with thwarting al-Qaida in Iraq several years ago.
But the U.S. State Department played down Mr. Dulaimi's statement.
Also Thursday, President Barack Obama said U.S. troops who had been planning an evacuation of refugees further north were standing down, as U.S. airstrikes and supply drops had broken the “siege of Mount Sinjar,” where thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority had taken refuge from the militants. Mr. Obama said some of the U.S. personnel sent to draw up plans for the evacuation of the Yazidis would soon leave Iraq.