White House hails Maliki departure as 'major step forward'

WASHINGTON - The White House welcomed Nuri al-Maliki's decision Thursday to drop his bid to remain prime minister in Iraq, calling it "another major step forward in uniting" a country which threatens to be torn apart by a jihadist offensive and political infighting.

"We commend Prime Minister Maliki for his decision to support Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi in his efforts to form a new government in line with the Iraqi constitution," National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in a statement.

In abandoning his bid to stay in power, the divisive Maliki has bowed to huge domestic and international pressure, two months into a brutal offensive by so-called Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

Quelling fears a desperate power struggle could worsen what is already Iraq's biggest crisis in years, Maliki said he was stepping aside to "facilitate the progress of the political process and the formation of the new government."

Reacting to the move, Rice said: "Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country." She added: "We have heard from a wide range of leaders across the Iraqi political spectrum who have expressed their commitment to work with Dr. Abadi to form a broad, inclusive government with an agenda that can address the needs and legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people.

"In the last few days, we have also welcomed statements of support from all over the world for the new prime minister-designate.

"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 (IS)."