Baghdad: Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad yesterday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive towards the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.
Iraq’s top Shia cleric yesterday urged all people to unite and expel Sunni Muslim insurgents, as Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki came under growing pressure at home and abroad.
The call came after US President Barack Obama stopped short of acceding to Maliki’s appeal for air strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), prompting neighbouring Shia Iran to charge that Washington lacked the “will” to fight terror.
President Barack Obama’s plan to send advisers to Iraq to help Baghdad counter Sunni Islamist militants shows the United States is not serious about fighting terrorism, an Iranian official was quoted by official media as saying yesterday.
Obama on Thursday offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shia-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the Sunni minority.
“Obama’s recent remarks showed that the White House lacks serious will for confronting terrorism in Iraq and the region,” the official Irna news agency reported Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying.
Abdollahian said the US “delay” in fighting terrorism and the ISIL has “fuelled suspicions and doubts about the US objectives in Iraq,” Irna reported.
The Pentagon said yesterday that Iran had sent “small numbers” of operatives into Iraq to bolster the Shia-led government in Baghdad but there is no sign of a major deployment of army units.
“There are some Iranian revolutionary operatives in Iraq but I’ve seen no indication of ground forces or major units,” spokesman Admiral John Kirby told a news conference, apparently referring to Tehran’s Quds force, the covert arm of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.
His comments marked the first public confirmation by the US government that Iranian operatives had crossed into Iraq, where the Baghdad government is struggling to counter the swift advance of Sunni extremists. A swift militant offensive, led by the ISIL, has overrun swathes of northern and central Iraq, threatening the United States’s already damaged legacy in the country.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, a revered cleric whose stature dwarfs that of any other figure among the Shia majority, called for Iraqis to band together against the insurgents before it was too late. If ISIL is not “fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning,” his spokesman announced on his behalf.
The reclusive Sistani, who heads a council of senior clerics, also said Iraq’s next government must be “effective” and avoid “past mistakes”, an apparent rebuke to Maliki, premier since 2006.
His remarks came after several senior American figures pushed the premier, who is seeking to retain his post after winning a plurality in April 30 elections, to work with Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.
US Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and David Petraeus, the former top US commander in Iraq, have all either called for Maliki to be more inclusive or outright criticised him.
Obama, who based his political career on ending the costly eight-year US intervention in Iraq, has insisted that his country is not slipping back into the morass.
Washington has already positioned an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and is flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq.
Senior US officials said privately that special forces being sent to advise Iraqi forces could call in air strikes if necessary.
On the ground, Iraqi security forces were battling militants in several areas yesterday, with 34 members of the security forces killed in a town on the border with Syria, while 30 pro-government Shia militiamen died in a firefight with insurgents northeast of the capital in Diyala province.
In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100km north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIL and its allies back.