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October 31, 2014

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State Dept.: U.S. ‘fully supports’ Iraq president

The United States said Sunday it "fully supports" Iraq's new president, just hours after embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused him of violating the constitution.

The State Department responded after al-Maliki accused Fouad Massoum, who was named president last month, of neglecting to name a prime minister from the country's largest parliamentary faction by Sunday's deadline. He said Massoum has violated the constitution "for the sake of political goals."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. rejects any effort to use coercion or manipulation in the process of choosing a new Iraqi leader. She said the U.S. supports the process to select a prime minister "by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner."

Al-Maliki's surprise speech late Sunday plunged the government into a political crisis at a time it is battling advances by Islamic State militants. It was his first speech on Iraqi TV since U.S. forces launched airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops in Iraq last week.

Al-Maliki is seeking a third-term as prime minister, but the latest crisis has prompted even his closest allies to call for his resignation. A parliament session scheduled for Monday to discuss the election and who might lead the next Iraqi government was postponed until Aug. 19.

President Barack Obama last week approved limited airstrikes against Islamic State fighters, whose rapid rise in June plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the end of 2011, when U.S. troops withdrew from the country at the end of an unpopular eight-year war. Obama said the current military campaign would be a "long-term project" to protect civilians from the deadly and brutal insurgents.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday the militants threaten not just Iraqis but also Americans. He said Obama's strikes were insufficient to turn back the militants and were designed "to avoid a bad news story on his watch."

"I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorists' ability to operate in Syria and in Iraq," said Graham, a reliable advocate for using U.S. military force overseas.

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, D-Calif., also said the militants pose a threat "in our backyard" and were recruiting westerners.

"Inaction is no longer an option," she said in a statement as airstrikes were underway.

The rhetoric tracked closely to that used in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lawmakers from both parties voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to take military action against Iraq in the hopes of combating terrorism.

At the time, many said the United States faced a choice of fighting terrorism on American soil or on foreign soil.

A close White House ally, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said Islamic State fighters are a "growing and troublesome" threat. But he added, "We must not send the troops."

"The big question is: What can the United States do to stop it?" Durbin asked.

American airstrikes have included fighter pilots and drones near Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, as recently as Sunday. The strikes are aimed at limiting Islamic State fighters' advances and helping Iraqi forces regain control. U.S. and Iraqi aircraft also have dropped humanitarian aid for the minority Yazidis, thousands of whom have been stranded on a scorching mountaintop since the Islamic militants seized Sinjar, near the Syrian border, last week.

The State Department said Sunday it had relocated a limited number of staff members from the U.S. consulate general in Irbil. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the move was made "out of an abundance of caution rather than any one specific threat." Staffing at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad "remains the same," she said.

Talks between Washington and al-Maliki that would have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraq collapsed in 2008, and Obama withdrew troops in 2011. Al-Maliki now is under mounting pressure to step aside, including requests from U.S. lawmakers.

"The collapse of Mosul was not a result of lack of equipment or lack of personnel. It was a leadership collapse," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "And so in order to put the situation right, we have to begin at the fundamental core, which is leadership in Baghdad, Iraqi leadership."

Graham spoke to "Fox News Sunday." Durbin appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Reed was interviewed on CBS' "Face the Nation."

AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this story from Darwin, Australia.

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