BAGHDAD: Iraqi forces held off attacks on a key town and an oil refinery as top US diplomat John Kerry yesterday pushed for unity in a conflict the UN says has killed nearly 1,100.
But those successes were marred when civilians were killed by air strikes aiming to push back Sunni Muslim insurgents, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have seized swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
The onslaught has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, alarmed world leaders and put Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki under pressure at home and abroad.
After wilting in the first attacks two weeks ago, loyalists appear to be performing better, holding off assaults at the Baiji oil refinery in the north, the country’s largest, and the strategic western town of Haditha.
Elsewhere, security forces and allied tribal fighters saw off a militant attack on Haditha in Anbar province.
Iraqi forces also carried out air strikes on the town of Baiji, outside the refinery, and on Husseibah in Anbar province, west of the capital.
State television said 19 “terrorists” were killed in Baiji, but officials and witnesses said the casualties were civilians.
In Husseibah, six civilians were among 13 killed.
In the ethnically divided northern oil hub of Kirkuk yesterday, gunmen killed the city council chief. Munir Al Qafili, a well-known and respected official, was shot dead on his way home in the east of the city.
Loyalists have struggled to stem the insurgent advance, with Maliki’s security spokesman saying hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began on June 9 — the most specific official information so far on government losses.
The UN yesterday said at least 1,075 people were killed and 658 wounded between June 5 and 22.
Yesterday, the cabinet decided that salaries of all government employees in militant-controlled areas will be held back until the conflict ends, meaning some civil servants may be unpaid for an extended period.
Kerry was in the autonomous Kurdish regional capital of Arbil to urge president Massud Barzani to work to uphold Iraqi cohesion. He told him “this is a very critical time for Iraq and the government formation challenge is the central challenge that we face.”
Kurdish forces were “really critical in helping to draw a line with respect to ISIL,” he added.
Kerry had met Maliki and other leaders in Baghdad on Monday to urge the speedy formation of a government following April elections in order to face down the insurgents.
Washington’s “support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” Kerry said.
“This is a critical moment for Iraq’s future.”
US leaders have stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but there is little doubt they feel he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in 2011.
Barzani told Kerry, who has since departed, that Kurds seek “a solution for the crisis that we have witnessed,” but warned that it had created a “new reality and a new Iraq.”
The militant offensive allowed Iraqi Kurds to take control of disputed territory they want to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad’s strong objections.
Speaking to CNN before yesterday’s talks, Barzani called for Maliki to step down, blaming him “for what has happened” in Iraq.
Pressed on whether Iraqi Kurds would seek independence, he said: “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”
The Pentagon said the first teams of up to 300 US military advisers had begun their mission in Baghdad to assist the Iraqi army in its fight against Sunni extremists.
Admiral John Kirby told reporters that “we have begun to deploy initial assessment teams” and two teams of about 40 troops “have started their new mission.”
But he insisted their role is to evaluate the state of the Iraqi army and not to stage attacks.
The first two teams were drawn from the US embassy in Iraq, and an additional 90 troops had arrived to set up a joint operations centre in Baghdad, Kirby said. Another 50 troops were due to deploy in the next few days, he added.