BAGHDAD / KIRKUK: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, under mounting pressure to give up his bid for a third term in office amid a jihadist-led insurgency, said Wednesday that any unconstitutional attempt to form a new government would open “the gates of hell” in the country.
Maliki’s defiant stance came as dozens of people were killed when a warplane struck a prison facility in Mosul, which is in the hands of ISIS.
In his weekly address to the nation, Maliki also said he rejected any outside interference in the process, an apparent reference to Tehran, in the wake of reports that Iranian officials believe Maliki can no longer hold his country together.
Iran is now backing calls by Iraq’s top religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Maliki to go and is looking for an alternative leader to combat the Islamist and tribal insurgency, the Iranian officials said.
In Mosul, a government airstrike on a Shariah court set up by ISIS killed some 60 people, the office of the prime minister’s military spokesman said.
The ISIS judge who ran the court was among those killed, the spokesman said. Hospital officials and witnesses said earlier that the airstrike had killed 50 people.
Iraqi state television said about 300 people who were in the militants’ custody were set free. The report did not say if there were other casualties besides the militants and did not say who freed the prisoners or how.
A Mosul resident, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing for his own safety, told the Associated Press over the phone that families of the prisoners rushed to the site to help their kin after the airstrike.
“The prison was partly damaged in the airstrike,” the resident said, adding that he did not know whether there were casualties.
Separately, Kurdish forces attacked ISIS fighters near the regional capital of Irbil in a change of tactics supported by the Iraqi central government to try to break the Islamists’ momentum.
The attack in Makhmur, 40 km southwest of Irbil, came after the Sunni militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds Sunday with a rapid advance through three towns, prompting Maliki to order his air force for the first time to back the Kurdish forces.
“We have changed our tactics from being defensive to being offensive. Now we are clashing with ISIS in Makhmur,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of the ministry which is in charge of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
But some 50,000 Yezidi refugees from one of the three towns taken Sunday, Sinjar, were at risk of starving to death if they were not rescued within 24 hours, Yawar said.
“Urgent international action is needed to save them. Many of them, mainly the elderly, children and pregnant women, have (already) died,” he said.
“We can’t stop ISIS from attacking the people on the mountain because there is one paved road leading up to the mountain and it can be used by them. They [ ISIS fighters] are trying to get to that road.”
A Kurdish human rights official said Iraqi army helicopters had been dropping food and water to civilians cowering in the mountains.
People in nearby Bashiqa, a diverse town with churches, mosques and a Yezidi temple, were taking no chances and have fled, a source at a nonprofit organization in the town said by telephone.
Also, ISIS has launched fresh attacks on Christian areas in north Iraq, sparking a new wave of displacement, the country’s Chaldean patriarch and witnesses said.
Towns shelled in the past few days by ISIS militants include Tal Kayf, Bartella and Qaraqosh, according to Christian sources.
The towns are among many in the area where thousands of Christians who were forced to abandon their homes in the main northern city of Mosul last month had found refuge.
Some of them are less than 50 kms from Irbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said at least one man had been killed by mortar fire, naming the victim as Lajin Hekmat, an employee of the main church in Tal Kayf, just north of Mosul.
A resident of Tal Kayf, Hanna Aziz Paulus, confirmed that the town had been targeted by shelling.
The town of Bartella had also been attacked by the jihadists, sparking an exodus, according to Sako.
“Bartella has seen the flight of many families in recent days,” he told AFP, adding the population had feared a major eruption of fighting following the jihadist offensive in nearby Sinjar.
Sako said he had this week sent a new message to Pope Francis demanding urgent mobilization to protect one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. “Christians are isolated, afraid and aware that in the face of such a sudden development, anything can happen,” the patriarch said in his message.
In other violence, medical and security officials said four car bombs exploded Wednesday evening in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, killing 61 people.
Police said the first attack was a double car bombing in a shopping area of Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in the east of the city, killing 31 people and wounding 34 others.
Later, another car packed with explosives detonated in the nearby neighborhood of Ur, also predominantly Shiite, killing 11 more people.
Medical officials confirmed the death toll and like police, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
A suicide car bomb exploded at a peshmerga checkpoint between Mosul and Irbil, killing one peshmerga and wounding 13, security sources and witnesses said.