By Raheem Salman and Michael Georgy
BAGHDAD, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Iraq's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threw his weight on Friday behind the new prime minister, calling for national unity to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State militants that threatens Baghdad.
Speaking after Nuri al-Maliki finally stepped down as prime minister under heavy pressure from allies at home and abroad, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ite majority said the handover to Maliki's party colleague Haider al-Abadi offered a rare opportunity to resolve political and security crises.
Iraq has been plunged into its worst violence since the peak of a sectarian civil war in 2006-2007, with Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State overrunning large parts of the west and north, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives and threatening the ethnic Kurds in their autonomous province.
Sistani told the country's feuding politicians to live up to their "historic responsibility" by cooperating with Abadi as he tries to form a new government and overcome divisions among the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that deepened as Maliki pursued what critics saw as a sectarian Shi'ite agenda.
Abadi himself, in comments online, urged his countrymen to unite and cautioned that the road ahead would be tough.
Sistani, a reclusive octogenarian whose authority few Iraqi politicians would dare openly challenge, also had pointed comments for the military, which offered serious resistance when the Islamic State staged its lightning offensive in June.
"We stress the necessity that the Iraqi flag is the banner they hoist over their troops and units, and avoid using any pictures or other symbols," Sistani said, in a call for the armed forces to set aside sectarian differences. Maliki was blamed for blurring lines between the army and Shi'ite militias.
Maliki ended eight years in power that began under U.S. occupation and endorsed Abadi, a member of his Shi'ite Islamic Dawa party, in a televised speech late on Thursday during which he stood next to his successor, surrounded by other leaders.
Maliki's critics at home and abroad had accused him of marginalizing the Sunni Muslim minority, which dominated Iraq until a U.S.-led invasion deposed dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. This, they said, had encouraged disaffected Sunnis to back the jihadist fighters who have ordered religious minorities to convert to their brand of Islam or die.
They have threatened to march on the capital.
The appointment of Abadi, who has a reputation as a less confrontational figure, had drawn widespread support within Iraq but also from the United States and regional Shi'ite power Iran - two countries which have been at odds for decades.
"The regional and international welcome is a rare positive opportunity ... to solve all (Iraq's) problems, especially political and security ones," Sistani said in comments which were relayed by his spokesman after weekly Friday prayers in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad.
After its capture of the northern metropolis of Mosul in June, a swift push by the Islamic State to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Baghdad and last week drew the first U.S. air strikes on Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011.
European Union foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the region's response to major crises including the conflict in Iraq.
In London, the British government said it would consider "positively" any request for arms from the Kurds to help them battle the militants who have seized much of Iraq,
The United States has asked European countries to supply arms and ammunition to the Kurdish forces, U.S. and European officials have said.
Prime Minister David Cameron has so far said Britain's response would be limited to a humanitarian effort, but London has also been transporting to Kurdish forces military supplies, such as ammunition, being provided by other nations.
"If we were to receive a request then we would consider it positively," a spokeswoman for Cameron said.
Several European governments, including France, Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, have said they will send arms to the Kurds or are considering doing so.
Abadi is in the sensitive process of trying to form a new government in a country beset by daily bombings, abductions and executions. He must rein in Shi'ite militias accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis and persuading the once dominant Sunni minority that they will have a bigger share of power. (Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
08/16/2014 6:17 PM EDT
US Military: Fighters, Drone Aircraft Strike Militants In N Iraq
BREAKING: US military: Fighters, drone aircraft strike militants near Irbil and Mosul Dam in Iraq— The Associated Press (@AP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 6:07 PM EDT
Kurdish Officials Say 300 Killed In Friday 'Massacre'
Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.
.4/ 1000 women were taken as prisoners by #IS split into 2 groups. The "pretty incl gilrs aged btwn 10-11 and the others.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 5:57 PM EDT
British PM: Islamic State Militants Could Target UK
Islamic State militants in Iraq could grow strong enough to target the UK unless action is taken - PM David Cameron http://t.co/k2i5CjTm2S— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 4:49 PM EDT
NYT Correspondent Recounts Iraq Helicopter Crash
New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.
Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.
Read her moving account on The New York Times here.
08/16/2014 2:23 PM EDT
Iraq Refugees Learn Of Yazidi Massacre
The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Watch the BBC report here.
08/16/2014 1:03 PM EDT
U.S. Provides Air Support To Kurdish Offensive
Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.
More from AFP:
Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.
"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
08/16/2014 12:54 PM EDT
The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.
Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.
But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.
"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.
08/16/2014 11:38 AM EDT
U.S.-Backed Kurds Attempt To Recapture Mosul Dam
#BREAKING: US-backed Kurds in bid to retake Iraq's largest dam: general— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 11:14 AM EDT
Airstrikes Target Islamic State After Reports Of Yazidi Massacre
Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
08/15/2014 6:31 PM EDT
U.S. May Speed Up Aid To Iraq Despite Billions Already Spent
The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.
Read the full story here.