Obama: Iraq takes step forward

Iraq has taken “a promising step forward” with the nomination of a new prime minister, President Obama said Monday.

The comments, made in a break from Obama’s vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, sent the clearest signal yet that the United States is eager to see the end of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s reign.

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“Under the Iraqi constitution, this is an important step towards forming a new government that can unite Iraq's different communities,” Obama said.

Obama said he phoned Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi earlier Monday to congratulate him on his nomination to succeed al-Maliki “and to urge him to form a new cabinet as quickly as possible, one that's inclusive of all Iraqis and one that represents all Iraqis.”

“The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government: one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and one that can unify the country's fight,” Obama said.

The president also offered a subtle warning to al-Maliki, who has objected to the nomination.

“I urge all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead,” Obama said.

Al-Maliki has said he wants to seek a third term as Iraq's leader, despite criticism that his purge of minority Iraqis from top military and political posts enabled the rise of the Sunni extremists now waging war against the Shiites and Kurds. The Iraqi leader has said he will ask a federal court to intervene, and deployed loyal militiamen throughout the streets of Baghdad.

Shortly before the president spoke, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told MSNBC the U.S. was "actively engaged with everybody in Iraq" to try to "build an inclusive government." He said al-Maliki "has done some things that we certainly don't agree with," but stopped short of explicitly calling for his ouster, noting he was "still the prime minister of Iraq."
 
"But we've also been very clear to him when he's made decisions that we have really not agreed with," McGurk said. "And we'll continue to do that, and we'll also start to work with the prime minister designate as he begins, really in the coming hours and days, to form this national program."

Obama said the incoming Iraqi government “has a difficult task” ahead, alluding to both the troubled politics plaguing the country and the growing Islamist insurgency in the north.

“It has to regain the confidence of its citizens by governing inclusively and by taking steps to demonstrate its resolve,” Obama said.

The Pentagon announced Monday that it had continued to conduct airstrikes on Sunday, successfully targeting rebels engaging with Kurdish forces near Erbil. 

According to the Pentagon, multiple U.S. fighter jets struck and destroyed vehicles that were part of an ISIS convoy moving toward Kurdish forces outside the city.

The president said that the strikes advance “the limited military objectives we've outlined in Iraq,” including protecting American citizens, providing advice to the Iraqi military, and offering humanitarian assistance to minority groups that have been targeted by Sunni extremists.

“American forces have successfully conducted targeted air strikes to prevent terrorist forces from advancing on the city of Irbil and to protect American civilians there,” Obama said. “Kurdish forces on the ground continue to defend their city, and we've stepped up military advice and assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces as they wage the fight against ISIL.”

But Obama, defying critics calling for greater U.S. intervention, repeated his belief there was “no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.” 

McGurk added that "if there are additional options for the president to consider, that's something that he will consider in due course."
 
"You know, we can't do this on our own," McGurk said. "And the Iraqis are going to have to do this, but they might need some help from us. And we'll be in an active conversation with the new leadership of the Iraqi government about where we can most effectively help them."
 
This story was updated at 5:52 p.m.