Bowing to intense pressure, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari agreed to allow Shiite lawmakers to find someone else to head the new government, abandoning his claim on another term in the face of Sunni and Kurdish opposition.
Al-Jaafari's abrupt reversal on Thursday was an apparent breakthrough in the struggle to form a national unity government.
Leaders in the seven-party Shiite alliance, the largest bloc in the 275-member parliament, were to meet yesterday to begin choosing a replacement. But their field of candidates lacks stature and power, raising questions whether the new prime minister will be any more successful than al-Jaafari in confronting sectarian violence and the brutal insurgency.
It was unclear why al-Jaafari suddenly decided to relinquish the nomination that he won by a single vote with backing from radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during a ballot among Shiite lawmakers two months ago. Al-Jaafari had insisted on Wednesday that stepping aside was "out of the question.''
But in a letter on Thursday to the executive committee of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition, al-Jaafari wrote that he was prepared to "make any sacrifice to achieve'' the organization's goals. "I tell you, you chose me, and I return this choice to you to do as you see fit," he wrote.
"I cannot allow myself to be an obstacle, or appear to be an obstacle,'' al-Jaafari said in an emotional address on national television. He said he agreed to a new vote so that his fellow Shiite lawmakers "can think with complete freedom and see what they wish to do.''
However, Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said al-Jaafari's change of heart followed meetings on Wednesday in Najaf between UN envoy Ashraf Qazi and both al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most prestigious Shiite cleric.
Aides to al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiite alliance, said the ayatollah was frustrated over the deadlock in forming a government and alarmed over the rise in sectarian violence that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called for a strong and effective government that could "begin to repay the trust put in the political parties and the political leaders by the Iraqi people."
Many Shiite politicians had been quietly pressing al-Jaafari to step down, but were reluctant to force him out for fear it would shatter the Shiite alliance and make the coalition appear to be weak.
Shiite alliance leaders were to meet yesterday to decide how to choose a nominee. If representatives of the seven alliance parties cannot reach a consensus on a single candidate, they will put several choices to a vote before the bloc's 130 parliament members today, officials said.
It was unclear whether al-Jaafari's supporters would insist on his being among any candidates put to a vote, since he did not explicitly say that he was out of the running.
The final choice is due to be presented to parliament later today.
As the largest bloc in parliament, the Shiite alliance gets to name the prime minister subject to parliament approval.
But the Shiites lack the votes to guarantee their candidate's approval unless they have the backing of the Sunnis and Kurds, whom they need as partners to govern.
Sunnis and Kurds blame al-Jaafari for the increasing sectarian tensions and for failing to consult his coalition partners. Kurds accused him of failing to keep commitments over oil-rich Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to incorporate into their three-province self-ruled region in the north.