Baghdad (AFP) – Iraq’s premier rejected forming a salvation government to confront jihadists whose sweeping offensive in the country was bolstered Wednesday when Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise pledged loyalty to them at a border town.
NATO was due to hold key discussions Wednesday on Iraq, where the UN says nearly 1,100 people have been killed as insurgents led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) [also known as ISIS] overran swathes of land north and west of Baghdad this month.
U.S. military advisers landed in Baghdad but Washington has refused Baghdad’s request for air strikes in a bid to repel the onslaught, which has displaced hundreds of thousands, alarmed world leaders and put Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, under pressure at home and abroad.
Maliki ruled out forming a national salvation government to confront the crisis, in a televised speech less than a week before parliament is to convene following April 30 elections, describing it as a “coup against the constitution and the political process”.
“It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters,” added Maliki, whose bloc won by far the most seats in the polls but fell short of an outright majority.
His remarks came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent two days in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish capital Arbil pushing Iraqi leaders to unite to see off the militant onslaught.
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,” said Kerry, who is now in Brussels for the NATO meeting.
However, U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refrained from carrying out air strikes on the insurgents as urged by Maliki.
Washington has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but there is little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew.
Kerry is to hold back-to-back meetings Thursday with Gulf allies in Paris to brief them on his talks in Iraq and discuss Syria’s three-year conflict.
Also on Wednesday, the premier’s security spokesman said U.S. advisers had begun meeting with Iraqi commanders, adding that: “We hope that there will be a true (U.S.) intervention in order to offer real help for Iraq.”
The first of up to 300 U.S. military advisers began their mission to help the Iraqi army on Tuesday, but the Pentagon said they were not taking on a combat role.
Their primary task was to evaluate Baghdad’s forces, the Pentagon said, adding the U.S. had expanded its surveillance flights over Iraq, and was conducting 30-35 sorties daily.
America fought a bloody and expensive nearly nine-year war in Iraq that Obama made his political career opposing, making major U.S. involvement unlikely.
Washington has said it has received legal guarantees from Iraq to shield the advisers, but they fall short of the parliament-approved legal immunity it demanded during talks on a post-2011 American military presence in the country.
U.S. advisers come with the Iraqi military performing better after wilting in the initial stages of the militant onslaught, which began late on June 9.
They fought off insurgent attacks on a major air base Wednesday, after repelling assaults on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery and a key western town.
Militants and security forces clashed periodically overnight, but government troops maintained control of the Balad air base, said a tribal leader and a security official.
Maliki’s security spokesman says hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began.
On Wednesday, militants bombed two Shiite places of worship known as husseiniyahs, damaging the structures in northern Iraq without causing any casualties.
And in a move bolstering their strength, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Al-Nusra Front, pledged allegiance to ISIL at the tinderbox town of Albu Kamal on the Iraq-Syria border.
The move clears the way for a joint push to take control of both sides of the frontier between eastern Syria and western Iraq, and removes a threat to ISIL.
ISIL adheres to a harsh interpretation of Islamic law and considers Iraq’s majority Shiite population to be heretics.
It aims to create an Islamic state straddling Iraq and Syria, where it has become a major force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
It has commandeered an enormous quantity of cash and resources during the advance, boosting its coffers.
The United Nations says at least 1,075 people have been killed, an estimated three-quarters of them civilians, and 658 wounded in Iraq between June 5 and 22.
AFP Photo/Ali al-Saadi