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By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday sharply rejected calls to form a national unity government, striking a defiant tone in the face of U.S. pressure to share more political power as a rebellion by Sunni Muslim insurgents threatens his grip on the country.

Maliki’s rivals have urged a “national salvation government” that would demonstrate solidarity against the uprising led by an al-Qaida splinter group. But in a weekly address, Maliki, a member of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, dismissed the idea as “an attempt to eliminate the democratic experiment and to neglect the constitution.”

Even as he spoke, insurgents were launching attacks on a major air base at Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, a former U.S. military installation that currently houses a range of Iraqi military hardware including surveillance planes and pickup trucks equipped with machine guns.

Officials in Iraq’s western Anbar province, which is largely in the hands of the Sunni militants, said Syrian warplanes bombed two sites near the Iraq-Syria border, ostensibly targeting border crossings that the Islamist militants had seized in recent days.

Iraqi state media had earlier attributed the air strikes to U.S. drones, which the Pentagon denied. The involvement by Syria, if confirmed, illustrates how the sectarian feud in Iraq could drag in the wider Middle East.

Maliki’s government, dominated by the Shiite majority, has come under growing pressure to cede more authority to minority Sunnis and Kurds. President Obama declared last week that if Maliki doesn’t form an inclusive national government, Iraq risks sliding back into civil warfare.

A senior U.S. intelligence official who briefed reporters on Tuesday said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the al-Qaida offshoot leading the insurgent movement, “continues to threaten the air base … as it moves south toward Baghdad.”

Ninety U.S. troops — the first of up to 300 advisers ordered to Iraq by Obama — have arrived in Baghdad, where they were beginning to establish a joint operations center with Iraqi forces to help counter the Sunni insurgency. Four additional teams totaling about 50 people were expected to reach Iraq in the coming days, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in Washington.

© / Ahmad Al-Rubaye


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