MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says he giving up his fight to keep his job, and that paves the way for the end of 8 turbulent years in office. Earlier this week, Iraq's president nominated another man for Maliki's party, Haider al-Abadi, to replace him. Maliki initially vowed to stay in office, but today he addressed the country and said he would step aside. For more we're joined by NPR's Peter Kenyon who's in northern Iraq, and Peter, what more did Maliki say?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, is was a lot of talk about the terrorist threat facing Iraq and in fact, it was a remarkable turnaround from just a day earlier when he was calling the naming of a body unconstitutional and filing legal complaints. And now, he says he's stepping aside - doesn't want any position in a new government and he's supporting Abadi's bid to form that government for the good of the country. As comes after a long day of closed-door meetings and it clears away a major hurdle towards establishing the kind of unity government that might have a chance of pulling Iraq's factions together to fight the advance of the Islamic State - the Sunni militants controlling large chunks of the country.
BLOCK: Now, of course Maliki's been under pressure for a long time from the United States and others to step aside. As you say, he's been fighting this, so what changed his mind? What led to this?
KENYON: Well, it may be a while before we know exactly what led to it. For years, Maliki has lead this country as if he were the only person who could possibly do it. He defied all attempts to cater to Iraq's minority communities and he was accused of taking his cues from Tehran. Although in the face of this crisis, even Iranian officials backed away from him. The leading Shitte cleric here, Ayatollah al-Sistani, was uncharacteristically blunt recently, saying it's time for new leadership. His own party split over it and healing that split is going to be one of the jobs Mr. Abadi faces - as you mentioned, he's from the same party as Maliki.
BLOCK: So Maliki steps down and what happens now?
KENYON: Abadi has 30 days to form a new government and that's never an easy task in Iraq at the best of times, especially when it involves yoking together Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and others. Abadi is of course a leading Shiite politician himself but he has been saying the right things - calling on politicians to set aside their grudges and pull together to face the Islamic State.
BLOCK: And that is the question really, is can a new prime minister help unite Iraqis against the Islamic State militants?
KENYON: In theory, yes. If Abadi gets a new unity government, more international aid to help fight Islamic State should be freed up. And perhaps even more importantly, a new government can begin the hard task of rebuilding trust among the Sunni minority. It was the Sunni tribes you remember, who rose up against Al Qaeda fighters during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Now those Sunnis are being asked to rise up again. They haven't really wanted to do that - for fear that a Shiite-led government in Baghdad would turn around and repress them later. And of course Abadi supporters hope that this man, an English-speaking, British-educated politician, will rebuild ties with the West at the same time he holds onto ties with Iran. So clearly he's got his work cut out for him.
BLOCK: OK, NPR's Peter Kenyon in northern Iraq, again with the news that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to step down. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: You're welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.