BAGHDAD/PARIS: The United States urged Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates Thursday to do what they can to encourage Iraq to form an inclusive government to tackle Islamist militant forces threatening to tear apart the country.
The diplomatic push came as Iraqi forces battled to retake Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants, with one helicopter downed by insurgents in the process, as a bombing killed 12 people in a Shiite area of Baghdad.
In a frenetic round of meetings in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed his counterparts about U.S. intelligence gathering on potential targets in Iraq aimed at beating back the insurgency, according to senior State Department officials.
He made clear that Washington had not made a decision on whether to launch airstrikes, “but reserves the right to do so,” the officials told reporters, adding that none of the countries offered military assistance.
The foreign ministers of the three Arab states expressed concerns with the current Shiite-dominated leadership in Iraq, the officials said. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long had chilly relations with Sunni-led Gulf states, which view him as too close to Iran.
“We share concerns, and we are as focused as they are on making sure the next Iraqi government is inclusive and is formed in the near future,” a U.S. official said. “While there is no silver lining in a process like that, we do hope it infuses a sense of urgency into the process.”
Amid the possibility of airstrikes, Kerry briefed the ministers on his recent talks with Maliki, in which he urged him to form an inclusive government bridging sectarian splits that have been exploited by Sunni Islamist insurgents.“The move of ISIS concerns every single country here,” Kerry told reporters.
Iraq’s vice president called on parliament Thursday to convene next week, taking the first step toward forming a new government to present a united front against a rapidly advancing Sunni insurgency.
Maliki’s Shiite-led political bloc won the most seats in April 30 elections – 92 seats out of the 328 – but he needs support from other parties for a majority that would give him the right to govern.
Compounding the pressure on Maliki, Iraq’s powerful Shiite Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr made a televised statement late Wednesday in which he called for a national unity government of “new faces” representing all groups.
Sadr, whose followers fought fiercely against both U.S. forces and Sunni extremists during the height of the war nearly a decade ago, also vowed to “shake the ground” under the feet of the Al-Qaeda breakaway group that has threatened to advance toward Baghdad and Shiite holy cities in the south.
Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault on rebel-held Tikrit with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents.
Eyewitnesses said battles were raging in the city, which fell to ISIS fighters two weeks ago.
The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city’s university, a security source at the scene said.
In an interview with the BBC, Maliki said the Syrian air force had carried out strikes against militants on the Syrian side of the Al-Qaim border crossing, controlled by ISIS.
The premier said Baghdad had not requested the Syrian strikes, but he “welcomed” any such move against the ISIS-led militants.
Shortly before sunset, a bomb exploded near a clothing shop in Baghdad’s northern Shiite neighborhood of Khazimiyah, killing 12 people and wounding 32, said police and hospital officials.
In the north, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, Massoud Barzani said the Kurds were prepared to commit all of their forces to defend Kirkuk, during a visit to the disputed city.
If required, “we will bring all of our forces to preserve Kirkuk,” Barzani said during a meeting there.
It was Barzani’s first visit to Kirkuk since Iraqi forces withdrew in the face of the ISIS offensive, allowing the Kurdish forces already stationed there to take control.
The offensive has cleared the way for Iraqi Kurds to begin realizing long-held territorial dreams, moving their forces into disputed areas that the federal government has long opposed them adding to their autonomous northern region.