x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Top Shiite cleric urges quick decision on Iraq leadership

Iraqi forces continue strikes to retake Tikrit from extremists as Kurds declare they will not give up territory under their protection.

BAGHDAD // Iraq’s top Shiite cleric stepped up pressure on deeply divided political blocs on Friday, calling on them to agree on the next prime minister before the newly elected parliament convenes next week.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani appeal adds to calls for the creation of inclusive government that can defuse the crisis created by the seizure of large parts of the country by Sunni militants.

The current prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose sectarian policies have been blamed for triggering the current situation, is fighting to keep his job, with his former Shiite allies and even key patron Iran exploring alternatives.

The conflict has drawn the Americans back to Iraq with special forces being deployed to advise Iraqi troops. The US also has started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect US interests in the Iraqi capital, a Pentagon official said on Friday.

Mr Al Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, needs support from other parties after his State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections but failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone. That set the stage for potentially months of coalition negotiations. But now a new government is wanted urgently to face the lightning advance across the north and west of the country by the Al Qaeda breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The stunning gains were made possible in large part because Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the onslaught.

Iraqi forces have since started fighting back, sending troops into a strategic university campus in Tikrit and bombarding the city in an effort to retake it from the ISIL-led insurgents.

The home town of executed dictator Saddam Hussein was siezed by the Sunni militants on June 11, two days after they launched their offensive in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were targeting militants in Tikrit with air strikes to protect forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the city.

In further fallout from the crisis, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region declared on Friday that there was no going back on Kurdish self-rule in disputed territory, including ethnically divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish fighters.

The Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other towns from which federal forces withdrew in the face of the militant advance.

“Now, this [issue] ... is achieved,” he said, referring to a constitutional article meant to address the Kurds’ decades-old ambition to incorporate the territory in their autonomous region in the north over the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.

Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting British foreign secretary, William Hague, Mr Barzani said: “We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these [disputed] areas.

“There were Iraqi forces in these areas, and then there was a security vacuum, and [Kurdish] peshmerga forces went to fill this vacuum.”

International agencies meanwhile raised alarm bells over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town in recent days and 1.2 million displaced by unrest in Iraq this year.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse