BAGHDAD: Tribal leaders and preachers from Iraq's Sunni heartland said Friday that they would be willing under certain conditions to join a new government that hopes to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants that threatens Baghdad.
Members of the Sunni minority made their offer after Iraq's most influential Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threw his weight behind Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite trying to form an inclusive government in a country beset by daily bombings, abductions and executions.
Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying the vast western province of Anbar, where Sunni frustrations with the sectarian policies of outgoing Shiite premier Nouri al-Maliki have pushed some to join an insurgency led by ISIS fighters.
The tribal leaders and preachers said Sunni representatives in Anbar and other provinces had drawn up a list of demands to be delivered to Abadi, their spokesman Taha Mohammad al-Hamdoon told Reuters.
He called for government troops and Shiite militia forces to suspend their attacks in Anbar to allow for talks.
"It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing," Hamdoon said in a telephone interview, referring to strikes on Sunni cities. "Let the bombing stop and withdraw and curtail the militias until there is a solution for the wise men in these areas."
Separately, one of Anbar's most powerful tribal leaders, with thousands of men at his command, said on television he was ready to work with Abadi if he respected Sunni interests.
Ali Hatem Suleiman, a leading figure in an earlier alliance with U.S. and Iraqi forces against Al-Qaeda, said he could consider joining a new campaign against ISIS.
Sistani, spiritual leader of the Shiite majority, said earlier that the handover to Abadi offered a rare opportunity to resolve political and security crises.
Maliki finally stepped down as prime minister under heavy pressure from allies at home and abroad late Thursday, clearing the way for Abadi who is a party colleague but has a reputation as a less confrontational figure.
Maliki's critics at home and abroad had accused him of marginalizing the Sunni minority, which dominated Iraq until a U.S.-led invasion deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003. This, they said, had encouraged disaffected Sunnis to back the jihadist fighters who have ordered religious minorities to convert to their radical brand of Islam or die.
They have threatened to march on the capital.
The appointment of Abadi, had drawn widespread support within Iraq but also from the United States and regional Shiite power Iran - two countries which have been at odds for decades.
"The regional and international welcome is a rare positive opportunity ... to solve all (Iraq's) problems, especially political and security ones," Sistani said in comments which were relayed by his spokesman after weekly Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad.
After its capture of the northern metropolis of Mosul in June, a swift push by ISIS to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Baghdad and last week drew the first U.S. airstrikes on Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011.
In Geneva, the United Nations said around 80,000 people had fled to the relative safety of Dohuk province on the Turkish and Syrian borders, part of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced inside the country this year.
Dan McNorton of the UNHCR refugee agency said their plight was severe. "People are exhausted, people are very thirsty, these are searing temperatures," he told a news briefing, adding that children and old people were among those forced to walk for days without food, water or shelter.
Several thousand remained on the barren tops of the Mount Sinjar range, where members of the Yezidi religious minority fled the militants, who consider them "devil worshippers."
President Barack Obama said Thursday the Islamists' siege of Mount Sinjar had been broken and he did not expect the United States to stage an evacuation or continue humanitarian air drops.
However, McNorton said help was still needed. "That situation remains very dramatic for those people, regardless of how many people are on the mountain. It is of critical importance to ensure that they get the assistance and support that they need from the international community," he said.
European Union foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the region's response to major crises including the conflict in Iraq.
In London, the British government said it would consider "positively" any request for arms from the Kurds to help them battle the militants who have seized much of Iraq,
Prime Minister David Cameron has so far said Britain's response would be limited to a humanitarian effort, but London has also been transporting to Kurdish forces military supplies, such as ammunition, being provided by other nations.
"If we were to receive a request then we would consider it positively," a spokeswoman for Cameron said.
Several European governments, including France, Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, have said they will send arms to the Kurds or are considering doing so.