BAGHDAD: Iraq’s top Shiite sheikh Friday urged all Iraqis to unite and expel Sunni insurgents, as Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came under growing pressure at home and abroad, and 34 members of the security forces were killed on the border with Syria.
The call came after U.S. President Barack Obama stopped short of acceding to Maliki’s appeal for airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), prompting neighboring Iran to say Washington lacked the “will” to fight terror.
A swift militant offensive, led by ISIS, has overrun swathes of northern and central Iraq, threatening the United States’ already damaged legacy in the country.
The U.S. claimed Friday that Iran had sent a small number of operatives to fight alongside the Iraqi army.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure among the Shiite majority, called on Iraqis to band together against the insurgents before it was too late.
If ISIS is not “fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning,” his spokesman announced on his behalf.
The reclusive Sistani, who heads a council of senior sheikhs, said Iraq’s next government must be “effective” and avoid “past mistakes,” an apparent rebuke to Maliki, premier since 2006.
His remarks came after several senior American figures urged Maliki, who is seeking to retain the premiership after winning a plurality in April 30 elections, to work with Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, and David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, have all either called for Maliki to be more inclusive or openly criticized him.
Obama said Thursday that Maliki’s actions could dictate the country’s fate, amid a growing feeling in Washington that the Iraqi leader should step down.
Obama, who based his political career on ending the costly eight-year U.S. intervention in Iraq, has insisted that Washington is not slipping back into the morass.
But he has offered as many as 300 military advisers and left open the possibility of “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
Washington already has an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and is flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq.
Senior U.S. officials said privately that special forces being sent to advise Iraqi forces could call in airstrikes if necessary.
The latest offer was the most concrete action announced by Washington since the crisis erupted on June 9. But it fell short of Iraq’s request for airstrikes and drew derision from Tehran, which has offered its cooperation despite decades of enmity.
“Obama’s comments show the White House lacks serious will in fighting terrorism in Iraq and the region,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdolahian said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile offered “complete support” in a phone call with Maliki.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that military strikes against the jihadists could prove counterproductive without any movement toward inclusive government.
Thirty-four members of the security forces were killed in a town on the border Friday, while 30 pro-government Shiite militiamen died in a firefight with insurgents northeast of the capital in Diyala province.
Elsewhere, the battle for the strategic northern town of Tal Afar entered its sixth day. Witnesses said security forces clashed with militants, who still hold significant ground.
Shiite-majority Tal Afar lies on a strategic corridor to Syria, and is the largest town not to fall to militants in the northern Ninevah province, most of which has been overrun.
Meanwhile, U.N. aid agencies said they were rushing supplies to Iraq to help over 1 million people driven from their homes.