BAGHDAD - Iraq's president snubbed incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and picked another politician today to form the next government, setting up a fierce political power struggle even as the country battles extremists in the north and west.
The showdown came as the United States increased its role in fighting back Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group that is threatening the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Senior American officials said U.S. intelligence agencies are directly arming the Kurds who are battling the militants in what would be a shift in Washington's policy of only working through the central government in Baghdad.
U.S. warplanes carried out new strikes Sunday, hitting a convoy of Sunni militants moving to attack Kurdish forces defending the autonomous zone's capital, Irbil. The recent American airstrikes have helped the Kurds achieve one of their first victories after weeks of retreat as peshmerga fighters over the weekend recaptured two towns near Irbil. The Pentagon's director of operations said the effort will do little to slow Islamic State militants overall.
Haider al-Ibadi, the deputy speaker of parliament from al-Maliki's Shiite 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 al-Ibadi's nomination a "promising step forward" and he urged "all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process."
But al-Maliki, who has been in power for eight years, defiantly rejected al-Ibadi's nomination as prime minister. In a speech after midnight Sunday, he accused Massoum of blocking his reappointment as prime minister and carrying out "a coup against the constitution and the political process."