Maliki gives in to pressure and steps aside as Iraqi prime minister
Prime minister steps aside in favour of rival Haider al-Abadi, clearing the way for new government to tackle growing Sunni militant insurgency
Iraq's embattled Nouri al-Maliki has stepped down as prime minister, caving in to international and domestic pressure to give up his post to a rival politician.
The move defuses a political deadlock that has plunged Iraq into uncertainty and opens the way for the formation of a new government that could take on a growing insurgency by Sunni militants that has engulfed much of the country.
Maliki made the announcement on national television late on Thursday, standing alongside senior members of his Islamic Dawa Party, including rival Haider al-Abadi.
He said he was stepping aside in favour of his "brother", in order to "facilitate the political process and government formation".
Abadi, the premier-designate, is a veteran Shiite lawmaker who now faces the immense challenge of trying to unite Iraqi politicians. The country's major political factions deeply distrust each other and the army seems unable to regain territory in the north and west taken by militants from the Islamic State group.
Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term amid an attempt by opponents to push him out. They accuse him of monopolising power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that alienated the Sunni minority.
Maliki said his decision reflected a desire to "safeguard the high interests of the country", adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed.
His refusal to give up the post after eight years in power had provoked a political crisis that escalated this week in Baghdad.
The pressure intensified when his Shiite political alliance backed Abadi to replace him, and President Fouad Massoum nominated Abadi on Monday to form the next government.
Maliki threatened legal action against the president for what he said was a violation of the constitution. But in a meeting of his party on Thursday, Maliki agreed to endorse Abadi, who now has 30 days to form a cabinet.
The White House commended Maliki's move and expressed hope that the power shift "can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people" against the threat from Islamic militants.
The US and other countries have been pushing for a more representative government that will ease anger among Sunnis, who felt marginalised by Maliki's administration, which helped fuel the dramatic sweep by Islamic State extremists.
The militants' lightning advance across much of northern and western Iraq since June has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, and prompted the US to launch aid operations and air strikes as the militants threatened religious minorities
The UN on Wednesday declared the situation in Iraq a "Level 3 Emergency" after some 45,000 members of the Yazidi religious minority escaped from a remote desert mountaintop where they had been encircled by Islamic State fighters, who have vowed to kill any who did not convert to Islam.