BAGHDAD — Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Thursday night that he is stepping down, averting a political crisis at a time when Islamic militants have seized control of large swaths of the country.

The Obama Administration has blamed Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government for sparking much of the sectarian strife that has gripped his country, as minority Sunnis have felt alienated and have sympathized with armed Sunni extremists calling themselves the Islamic State.

al-Maliki made the announcement in an impassioned televised speech to a nation he has led for eight tumultuous years in the wake of the U.S.-invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

al-Maliki had been under intense pressure from within his own party, other Iraqis, neighbors in the region and the U.S. government to step down.

Iraq's new president had nominated Haider al-Abadi, a politician from al-Maliki's party to replace him, but al-Maliki had initially refused to back down and then threatened to file a court challenge.

His decision to back al-Abadi will help clear the way for increased U.S. aid.

Before the announcement, President Obama had urged the Iraqis to move forward in forming a new government.

Al-Maliki's leadership will be remembered most for its sectarian nature, which destroyed almost everything good he accomplished, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution. "His legacy did have some accomplishment and down the road we might be able to say some good things, but at this point, it looks like most of what he built up he also destroyed."

Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va.

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