Iraqi President Fuad Masum has asked the deputy speaker of parliament, Haider al-Abadi, to form a new government.
Haider al-Abadi had previously been nominated prime minister by Shia parties, instead of the incumbent Nouri al-Maliki.
However, Nouri al-Maliki’s allies rejected Haidr al-Abadi’s nomination, saying he had no legitimacy. Nouri al-Maliki has made it clear he wants to stand for a third term.
Meanwhile the jihadist insurgency in the north of Iraq continues to cause international concern.
Fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group have made substantial gains in northern Iraq in recent months, forcing tens of thousands of people from religious minorities to flee their homes.
The US has begun supplying weapons to the Kurdish Peshmergas who are fighting the militants, senior US officials have told the Associated Press.
Iraq’s deputy speaker of parliament, Haider al-Abadi, has been asked by President Fuad Masum to form a new government (photo Facebook)
Iraq’s security forces are also supporting the Kurdish fighters, and have already delivered three plane-loads of ammunition.
In Baghdad, Iraqi President Fuad Masum said in a TV address that he hoped Haider al-Abadi would succeed in forming a government that would “protect the Iraqi people”.
“The country is now in your hands,” Fuad Masum told Haider al-Abadi, according to the French news agency AFP.
Analysts say the announcement is a public snub for Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won the most seats in April’s elections.
Now he has lost support from some of his own Shias – with the Shia National Alliance reported to have given Haider al-Abadi 130 votes, compared with just 40 votes for Nouri al-Maliki.
Nouri al-Maliki has been prime minister since 2006, but even though his coalition won the elections in April, parliament has still not agreed to give him a third term. He has also lost the backing of the US.
His popularity has suffered from the growing Islamist insurgency in the north – and even before that his support from Sunnis and Kurds was dwindling.
The White House said Vice-President Joe Biden called President Fuad Masum to discuss the nomination of Haider al-Abadi, and promised US support for the formation of a new government.
Haider al-Abadi’s nomination was welcomed outside Iraq. The presidents of France and Turkey called for him to form a government of national unity, while the UN urged Iraqi militias to keep out of politics.
Iraq’s PM Nouri al-Maliki has rejected calls for a national salvation government to help counter the offensive by jihadist-led Sunni insurgents.
Such calls represented a “coup against the constitution and an attempt to end the democratic experience”, Nouri al-Maliki warned.
The US has led appeals to Iraq’s political leaders to rise above sectarian and ethnic divisions.
Government forces have been unable to recapture the territory seized by the rebels this month.
PM Nouri al-Maliki has rejected calls for a national salvation government to help counter the offensive by jihadist-led Sunni insurgents
Almost half of the 300 US military advisers assigned to help the Iraqi security forces have arrived.
Fighting was reported to have continued on Wednesday, with an attack by rebels on the Balad airbase, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
In his weekly televised address, Nouri al-Maliki called on “all political forces to reconcile” in the face of a “fierce terrorist onslaught”.
But the Shia prime minister gave no promise of greater representation in government for the minority Sunni Arab community, whose anger at what they say are his sectarian and authoritarian policies has been exploited by jihadist militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Nouri al-Maliki said forming an emergency administration that included all religious and ethnic groups would go against the results of April’s parliamentary elections, which were won by his State of Law alliance.
“The dangerous goals of forming a national salvation government are not hidden,” he said.
“It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters.”
Nouri al-Maliki committed to start forming a new governing coalition by July 1st.
Iraq is voting in the first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of US troops three years ago.
Polling began at 07:00 local time and closes at 18:00.
PM Nouri al-Maliki is hoping to win a third term in office amid a growing insurgency in the west of the country.
Iraq is experiencing its worst unrest since 2008, with 160 people killed in the past week alone.
Some 22 million Iraqis are registered to vote, with almost 50,000 polling stations open across the country.
Iraq is voting in the first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of US troops three years ago (photo Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)
There is a heavy security presence in the capital, with military helicopters on patrol.
The government has temporarily closed the airport and the main roads in and out of the city in an attempt to reassure voters.
Some voters face multiple searches before being allowed into polling stations.
While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the poll, Nouri al-Maliki is still expected to be a pivotal figure in the coalition-building process which will follow the election.
After casting his vote in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, Nouri al-Maliki said: “Our victory is certain, but we are waiting to see the size of our victory.”
His State of Law alliance, a Shia coalition, has largely avoided the fragmentation seen by other political blocs since the last election.
The campaign has so far been a violent one, with 50 people killed on Monday when soldiers, police and overseas citizens cast their votes.
One bomb struck a Kurdish political rally in the town Khanaqin, killing 30 people and wounding at least 50 others.
On Friday, at least 31 people were killed as a series of blasts targeted a Shia election rally in Baghdad. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – an al-Qaeda offshoot – said it had carried out the attacks.
More than 9,000 candidates are competing for 328 parliamentary seats. There will be no voting in parts of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where security forces still battle Islamist and tribal militants for control of the provincial capital Ramadi and nearby Falluja.
Iraqi troops arrested MP Ahmed al-Alwani and killed his brother and at least three of his guards during a raid on his home in the western city of Ramadi.
Ahmed al-Alwani, a member of the Sunni community, had backed protests against the mainly Shia government of PM Nouri al-Maliki and was reportedly wanted on terrorism charges.
Police said Ahmed al-Alwani’s guards opened fire as officers arrived to detain him.
Another 18 people were wounded in the ensuing skirmish, an official said.
“Security forces attacked the residence of MP Ahmed al-Alwani in central Ramadi to arrest him this morning, sparking a battle with his guards with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades,” a police major told AFP news agency.
“Five of Alwani’s guards and his brother were killed and eight others wounded, while 10 security forces members were also wounded,” the major said.
Ahmed al-Alwani, a member of the Sunni community, had backed protests against the mainly Shia government of PM Nouri al-Maliki and was reportedly wanted on terrorism charges
Some reports suggest that a sister of the MP – a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc – was also among those killed in the raid.
The reasons for Ahmed al-Alwani’s arrest were not immediately clear. Associated Press news agency said he was wanted on terrorism charges.
He has also been a prominent supporter of a group of activists camped on a highway near Ramadi protesting against the perceived marginalization and persecution of Iraqi Sunnis by the Shia-dominated government.
PM Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly threatened to shut down the camp, saying it has become a headquarters of al-Qaeda.
Ahmed al-Alwani’s arrest comes as Iraq remains in the grip of sectarian fighting which has made this the deadliest year since 2008.
Iraq’s fugitive vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has been sentenced to death in absentia after a court found him guilty of running death squads.
The court ruling came as at least 45 people were killed in a wave of about 24 attacks across Iraq.
Tariq al-Hashemi was the most senior Sunni Muslim in the predominantly Shia Iraqi government until he was charged last December and went on the run.
The charges against him sparked a political crisis in Iraq.
Iraq's fugitive vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has been sentenced to death in absentia after a court found him guilty of running death squads
Other Sunni politicians denounced Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who issued the warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi – as a dictator, accusing him of deliberate provocation that risked plunging the country back into sectarian conflict.
Correspondents say the fragile government coalition between Sunnis, secularists and Shia has seemed in danger of collapse ever since.
Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaeda have been blamed for much of the recent violence in Iraq.
The Iraqi government issued the warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi’s arrest on 19 December 2011, the day after the last US troops left the country.
He fled first to the largely autonomous Kurdish north of the country, and from there to Qatar and on to Turkey.
Prosecutors said Tariq al-Hashemi was involved in 150 killings. During his trial in absentia in Baghdad, some of his former bodyguards said Tariq al-Hashemi had ordered murders.
He says the charges against him are politically motivated and has accused PM Nouri al-Maliki of fuelling sectarianism.
On Sunday, an Iraqi court found Tariq al-Hashemi and his son-in-law guilty of two murders and sentenced him to death by hanging. The judge dismissed a third charge for lack of evidence.
Although violence has decreased since its peak in 2006 and 2007, attacks have escalated again after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of last year, amid increasing political and sectarian tensions.
The Iraqi government has been hampered by divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political groups.
The Iraqi government said July 2012 was the deadliest month in nearly two years, with 325 people killed.
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, and many Sunnis believe they are being penalized by Shias, who have grown in influence since the US invasion.
Sunnis have accused Nouri al-Maliki of taking an authoritarian approach to government.
At least 48 people died and dozens have been injured in a wave of bombings and shootings across Iraq, police say.
The attacks targeted predominantly Shia areas, in particular police officers and checkpoints.
In Baghdad, nine people died in two successive blasts in the central Karrada district. Outside the capital, at least two were killed in Baquba.
No group has yet said it was behind the violence. Attacks in Iraq have risen since US troops withdrew in December.
Tolls from other attacks around Baghdad include:
• six dead after a car bomb in Shia-dominated Kadhimiya, norht of Baghdad
• six killed by gunmen at a police checkpoint in the Sarafiya district of the capital
• two dead and five injured in an explosion in the western al-Mansour district
• two killed and 10 injured in two explosions in Dorat Abo Sheer, southern Baghdad
• two killed and nine wounded in an attack by gunmen using weapons with silencers, targeting a police patrol in Saidiya, southern Baghdad
• seven injured, most of them policemen, in a blast in al-Madaen, south of Baghdad
• five civilians injured in a bomb explosion in Taji, north of Baghdad
There are also reports of bombings in the provinces of Salahuddin and Kirkuk.
The capital of Salahuddin province is Tikrit, the home town of former leader Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006.
There are fears the death toll from Thursday’s violence could rise.
Last week, at least 18 people were killed in a suicide attack near the Iraqi police academy in the capital.
Shia targets have come under increasing attack since the government of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved against senior members of the predominantly Sunni Iraqiya political bloc.
The day after US troops withdrew a warrant was issued for the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, who is accused of financing death squads.
Tariq al- Hashemi, who denies the charges, is currently in Iraqi Kurdistan, under the protection of the regional government.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq said it carried out previous waves of attacks in December and January.
However, a senior government official said the upsurge in violence since the withdrawal of US troops was politically motivated. The official blamed Tariq al- Hashemi for planning and co-ordinating the attacks.