By Alexander Dziadosz and Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An ever more isolated Nuri al-Maliki again protested his removal as Iraqi prime minister on Wednesday as his former sponsor in Iran publicly endorsed a successor who many in Baghdad hope can halt the advance of Sunni jihadists.
While Maliki, abandoned by former backers in the United States and Iraq's Shi'ite political and religious establishment, pressed his legal claim on power, premier-designate Haider al-Abadi held consultations on forming a coalition government that can unite warring factions after eight years that saw the Sunnis driven to revolt by what they saw as Maliki's sectarian bias.
Shi'ite-led government forces and their allies among the ethnic Kurdish militias of northern Iraq were in action on the frontlines against the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State as European Union states began to follow the U.S. lead and provide arms direct to the Kurds and step up efforts to help tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the advancing hardline Islamists.
Though Maliki has built up a network of commanders in the armed forces and Shi'ite militias who owe him personal ties of loyalty, there was no sign that he was ready to resort to force against Abadi, a long-time associate in the Islamic Dawa Party.
In a speech on state television, in his continuing capacity as acting prime minister, Maliki said he was waiting for the supreme court to rule on his complaint that, as leader of the biggest bloc in the parliament elected in April, it was he, not Abadi, whom the president should invite to form a government. A court ruling against Maliki could be a way out of the stand-off.
"The violation that occurred has no value," Maliki said. "This government is continuing, and will not be changed except after the Federal Court issues its decision."
But the United States, during whose occupation Maliki first rose to power, made clear again that it has had enough of him - the White House said it would be glad to see an Abadi government and urged Maliki to let the political process move forward.
And Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, bound to Tehran's U.S. adversary by a common interest in curbing the rise of Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq, offered his personal endorsement to Abadi. He very publicly distanced himself in the process from Maliki, who has looked for support from Iran, where he spent years in exile opposing Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I hope the designation of the new prime minister in Iraq will untie the knot and lead to the establishment of a new government and teach a good lesson to those who aim for sedition in Iraq," Khamenei said in a statement on his website.
Iranian media carried reports that Khamenei sent an envoy last month to take part in discussions with Shi'ite political and religious leaders to find an alternative to Maliki.
Those leaders, including reclusive top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, last week rallied around Abadi, who once ran a British engineering company, as a compromise figure who could bring moderate Sunnis into power.
In online statements, Abadi said on Wednesday he had called on the various political blocs to appoint representatives to take part in talks on forming a cabinet. He hoped for a "strong government" that could help the country resolve the "crises and problems it faces on the political and security levels".
There was more familiar bloodshed in Baghdad, where at least 12 people were killed by bombs in two mainly Shi'ite areas.
And there was violence too on the 1,000-kilometre (600-mile) front established by the Islamic State, which exploited the political stalemate in Baghdad to burst beyond strongholds in Syria to claim a cross-border caliphate occupying up to a third of Iraq.
Kurdish peshmerga militia sources said their forces clashed with IS fighters in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad. In the provincial capital, Baquba, five Sunni Muslims were killed when Shi’ite gunmen shot them as they prayed in a mosque.
Government forces, who collapsed in the face of the Islamic State in June, fought alongside Shi'ite volunteers around the Sunni city of Tikrit, north of the capital, and residents also reported skirmishes in the western cities of Ramadi and Falluja.
With ethnic Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed back on the defensive by the Islamic State this month, France announced it was joining the United States in urgently supplying what it called "sophisticated arms" to the autonomous regional force, and EU foreign ministers agreed to break summer holidays to meet on Friday to discuss the crisis.
A U.S. official said talks were also under way with Arab countries on supplying munitions to the Kurds.
In addition to arming the Peshmerga and, in the case of Washington, bombing militant positions, Western powers have been trying to help aid agencies drop supplies and provide refuge for tens of thousands of people, many of them from non-Sunni communities, who have fled attacks by the Islamic State.
The White House said the United States was looking with its allies at setting up airlifts and safe land corridors to rescue people, including many from the Yazidi sect stranded on the arid heights of Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border.
In a sign of how Western powers could be drawn back into a region despite public reluctance to repeat the experience of the last decade, the White House said that while President Barack Obama has ruled out sending back combat troops to Iraq it could not rule out ground troops being used in a humanitarian role.
(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Baghdad and Mehrdad Balali in Dubai; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman)