BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki broadcast a joint appeal for national unity yesterday with bitter Sunni critics of his Shia-led government - a move that may help him win US help against rampant Islamists threatening Baghdad.
Just hours after Maliki’s Shia allies had angrily vowed to boycott any cooperation with the biggest Sunni party and his government had accused a Sunni neighbour of backing “genocide”, the premier’s visibly uncomfortable televised appearance may reflect US impatience with its Baghdad protege.
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met behind closed doors and then stood frostily before cameras as Maliki’s Shia predecessor Ibrahim Al Jaafari read a statement denouncing “terrorist powers” and supporting Iraqi sovereignty.
US President Barack Obama is considering military options to push back Al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has swept the Sunni north of the country over the past week as the Shia-led army has crumbled.
But in return Washington want Maliki to do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among minority Sunnis which ISIL has exploited to win support among tribal leaders and former followers of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion,” Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of “reviewing the previous course” of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama Al Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.
Earlier, Maliki’s government accused a neighbouring country of backing ISIL.
“We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally and for its outcome - which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites,” a government statement said.
Maliki, who has been buoyed by a call by Iraq’s senior Shia cleric for citizens to rally to the armed forces, dismissed four generals for abandoning the big northern city of Mosul a week ago and said they would face court martial.
Scores were killed yesterday in a battle for another provincial capital, close to Baghdad, and fighting shut Iraq’s biggest refinery at Baiji, hitting fuel and power supplies.
Government forces said they repelled an overnight attempt by insurgents to seize Baquba, capital of Diyala. Some residents and officials said scores of prisoners from the local jail were killed. There were conflicting accounts of how they had died.
ISIL fighters who aim to build a Muslim caliphate across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier launched their revolt by seizing Mosul and swept through the Tigris valley towards Baghdad.
Western countries, including the United States, have urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to rebuild national unity as the only way of preventing the disintegration of Iraq.
“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “I have been urging Iraqi government leaders including Prime Minister Al Maliki to reach out for an inclusive dialogue and solution of this issue.”
But the prime minister, in power for eight years and effective winner of a parliamentary election two months ago, seems instead to be relying more heavily than ever on his own sect, who form a majority long oppressed under Saddam.
Though the joint statement late yesterday said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shia militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.
Obama has invited Congressional leaders to talks at the White House today as he considers his options in Iraq.
Iraqi officials confirmed that the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad had shut down, although they said government troops still held the vast compound. Foreign workers were evacuated by Iraqi government helicopters.
According to one Shia Islamist working in the government, well-trained organisations Asaib Ahl Haq, Khataeb Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation are now being deployed alongside Iraqi military units as the main combat force.
Two attacks hit Shia markets in Baghdad yesterday, a suicide bomber and a car bomb. The two attacks left 18 dead and 52 wounded, according to medical and security sources.
The Sunni militants are held at bay about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad and just on the capital’s outskirts to the west, beyond the airport.
Militants also attacked a town near the northern oil hub of Kirkuk that is inhabited by Shia ethnic Turkmen. The fighting went back and forth and appeared a preview of the challenges the Kurds now facing having rolled into Kirkuk last week after the Iraqi army abandoned positions. A local official from said 5,000 Turkmen had fled. By nightfall, ethnic Kurdish fighters had cleared most of the town but militants still held some ground.