U.S. dangles more aid to new Iraq leader

During a news conference in Sydney, after the naming of a new Iraqi prime minister, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed cautious optimism in Iraq’s new leadership. (Reuters)

The United States is ready to offer significant additional economic and military aid to Iraq under a new, less sectarian government, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday.

The Obama administration is offering the prospect of more money and military backing short of combat forces as an inducement toward the rapid formation of a new government to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki, who has lost American backing after eight years of often fractious dealings with Washington, is refusing to step aside.

The political crisis is made more acute by the rapid advance of Islamist militants, including in the formerly secure semiautonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

“The U.S. does stand ready to fully support a new inclusive Iraqi government,” particularly in its fight against militants known as the Islamic State, Kerry said following two days of military and diplomatic talks in Australia.

The U.S. military is helping the current Iraqi government with airstrikes against the militants, begun last week, and humanitarian air drops to stranded civilians. The Obama administration has sought to separate the help from any support for Maliki, although he had requested it.

The Pentagon is also helping move equipment and arms to the Kurdish armed forces, known as the pesh merga, Hagel noted Tuesday. U.S officials told The Washington Post and other media on Monday that Washington is also helping to covertly arm the pesh merga, but that component went unmentioned as Kerry and Hagel answered questions Tuesday with the Australian defense and foreign ministers.

“As a new government takes shape, we would consider further requests from that new government,” Hagel said.

Kerry congratulated Haider al-Abadi, the veteran Shiite politician selected to form a new government, and urged him to do so quickly. He dangled additional American aid but said he would not give details now, before the Abadi government is up and running, and suggested that money and other assistance would be tied to the new government’s performance. Neither Kerry nor Hagel mentioned Maliki by name.

“Without any question, we are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government,” Kerry said, with the aid “very much calculated to try to stabilize the security situation, expand economic development and strengthen the democratic institutions.”

The Obama administration has ruled out any American combat presence on the ground in Iraq, despite the startling turn of events that led President Obama, who campaigned on ending the Iraq war, to again send U.S. warplanes to Iraqi skies. Kerry underscored that the additional assistance for Abadi does not extend to U.S. ground forces.

Obama on Monday publicly announced his backing for Abadi, saying that his nomination was “a promising step forward.” Both he and Vice President Biden called Abadi to express their support.

Abadi now has 30 days to form a government, and during that time Maliki will remain the caretaker prime minister.

Iraq’s president named prominent Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi as new prime minister and has asked him to form a new government. The move dislodges Nouri al-Maliki, who has been widely blamed for the growth of the Islamic State. (The Washington Post)

In his eight years as premier, Maliki has consolidated power in his office, ruling in an authoritarian style that has chipped away at his support among minority Sunnis, as well as his fellow Shiites. He is widely blamed for fostering an environment that has allowed Sunni extremists from the Islamic State to seize control of huge chunks of Iraqi territory.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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