Maliki reaches out to Iraqi rivals
Prime minister Nouri Maliki has reached out to Iraq's disaffected Sunnis and Kurds in a TV diplomatic offensive as troops and militants battled for control of the nation's largest oil refinery.
Meanwhile, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country had formally asked the US to launch air strikes against militant positions.
The US has been pressing Mr Maliki to adopt political inclusion and undermine the uprising by making overtures to Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority, which has long complained of discrimination by his government and abuses by his Shiite-led security forces.
In Washington, President Barack Obama briefed leaders of Congress on options for quelling the al Qaida-inspired insurgency, though White House officials said the president had made no decisions about how to respond to the crumbling security situation in Iraq.
While Mr Obama has not fully ruled out the possibility of launching air strikes, such action is not imminent, officials said, in part because intelligence agencies have been unable to identify clear targets on the ground.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the US had received a request for air power to stop the militants, but highlighted the uncertain political situation in Iraq.
"The entire enterprise is at risk as long as this political situation is in flux," he told a Senate panel. He added that some Iraqi security forces had backed down when confronted by the militants because they had "simply lost faith" in the central government in Baghdad.
Mr Maliki's conciliatory words yesterday were coupled with a vow to teach the Sunni militants a "lesson" as almost all Iraq's main communities have been drawn into a spasm of violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings nearly a decade ago.
Shiite Mr Maliki has rejected claims of bias against Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and has in recent days been stressing that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.
He also rejects any suggestion that Isis and other extremist groups enjoy support by disaffected Sunnis fed up with his perceived discrimination.
In a move apparently designed to satisfy Mr Obama's demand for national reconciliation, Mr Maliki expressed optimism in the televised address yesterday over what he called the rise by all of Iraq's political groups to the challenge of defending the nation against the militant threat.
The crisis had led Iraqis to rediscover "national unity", he said.
"I tell all the brothers there have been negative practices by members of the military, civilians and militiamen, but that is not what we should be discussing. Our effort should not be focused here and leave the larger objective of defeating Isis."
On Tuesday night the prime minister appeared on television with Sunni and Kurdish leaders and issued a joint statement about the need to close ranks and stick to "national priorities" in the face of the threat posed by the militants.
Still, Mr Maliki's outreach remain largely rhetoric, with no concrete action to bridge differences with Sunnis and Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the prime minister over their right to independently export oil and over territorial claims.
Meanwhile the military said government forces had repelled repeated attacks by the militants on the country's largest oil refinery and retaken parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border.
Chief military spokesman Lt Gen Qassim al-Moussawi said Iraqi army troops had defended the refinery at Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, and 40 attackers were killed in fighting there.
The Beiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity - all of which goes towards domestic consumption for things like petrol, cooking oil and fuel for power stations. Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the pumps and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq.
The Iraqi crisis' growing sectarian nature - which Mr Maliki vehemently denies - caught the attention of United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon.
In a message to the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation Council meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he called on Iraq's leaders "to come together and agree on a national security plan to address the terrorist threat from Isis".
"The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq is deeply alarming and increases the sectarian tensions in the region," Mr Ban said. "It is imperative that acts of reprisal be avoided as they can only intensify the cycle of violence."
The campaign by the Isis militants has raised the spectre of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, with the popular mobilisation to fight the insurgents taking an increasingly sectarian slant, particularly after Iraq's top Shiite cleric made a call to arms on Friday.
The visit to Iraq this week by Ghasem Soleimani, leader of Iran's secretive Quds Force and its most powerful general , has confirmed long-time suspicions by the Sunnis that Mr Maliki was too close to Iran, a mostly Shiite none-Arab nation that Sunni Arab states, including powerhouse Saudi Arabia, see as a threat to regional stability.
The Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to some of the sect's most revered shrines, in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since US troops left in late 2011. The militants have also tried to capture Samarra, a city north of Baghdad and home to another major Shiite shrine.
Iran has seen thousands volunteer to defend the shrines and its president, Hassan Rouhani, told a crowd at a stadium near the Iraq border: "We declare ... that the great Iranian nation will not miss any effort in protecting these sacred sites."