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Iraq's al-Maliki Extends Overtures to Rivals

Updated: 06/18/2014 4:47 PM
Created: 06/18/2014 5:47 AM KSTP.com

Iraq's Shiite prime minister extended overtures Wednesday to his Sunni and Kurdish political rivals as his forces battled Sunni militants over control of the nation's largest oil refinery and a strategic city near the Syrian border.
    
Nouri al-Maliki's uncharacteristically conciliatory words, coupled with a vow to teach the militants a "lesson," came 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.
    
The U.S. has been pressing al-Maliki to adopt political inclusion and undermine the insurgency 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.
    
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has rejected charges of bias against the Sunnis or the Kurds and has in recent days been stressing that the threat posed by the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, will affect all Iraqis regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. He also rejects any suggestion that the Islamic State and other extremist groups enjoy support by disaffected Sunnis fed up with his perceived discrimination.
    
In a move apparently designed to satisfy Obama's demand for national reconciliation, al-Maliki appeared on television late Tuesday with Sunni and Kurdish leaders. They 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.
    
On Wednesday, al-Maliki spoke in a televised address, saying he was optimistic over what he called the rise by all political groups to the challenge of defending the nation against the militant threat.
    
"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," he said. "Our effort should not be focused here and leave the larger objective of defeating ISIL," he said, adding that the crisis has led Iraqis to rediscover "national unity."
    
Still, al-Maliki's overtures 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.
    
Al-Maliki's upbeat assessment came as 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.
    
The chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said Iraqi army troops had defended the refinery at Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, and 40 attackers were killed in fighting there overnight and early Wednesday.
    
An employee at the oil refinery reached by The Associated Press late Wednesday also said the facility remained in government hands, though one of its fuel tanks was on fire after it was apparently hit by a mortar shell fired by the militants. He spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing the situation there.
    
The Beiji refinery accounts for a little more than a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity - all of which goes toward domestic consumption for things like gasoline, cooking oil and fuel for power stations. Any lengthy outage at Beiji risks long lines at the gas pump and electricity shortages, adding to the chaos already facing Iraq.
    
Video footage posted online showed smoke billowing in the background from an area near the refinery. Another clip uploaded by the Islamic State militants showed heavily armed fighters arriving in the town, waving black flags out of cars. The videos appear genuine and correspond to AP's reporting of the events depicted.
    
There was no independent confirmation of the military's claims about the Beiji refinery or that its forces had retaken neighborhoods in Tal Afar, which Sunni fighters captured Monday. Both are in territories held by insurgents that journalists have not been able to access. Tal Afar's proximity to the Syrian border strengthens the Islamic State's plan to carve out an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across parts of the two countries.
    
The Iraqi crisis' growing sectarian nature - which al-Maliki vehemently denies - has caught the attention of U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
    
In a message to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Council meeting Wednesday in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, he called on Iraq's leaders "to come together and agree on a national security plan to address the terrorist threat from ISIL."
    
"The rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq is deeply alarming and increases the sectarian tensions in the region," Ban said. "It is imperative that acts of reprisal be avoided as they can only intensify the cycle of violence."
    
The campaign by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State militants has raised the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007, with the popular mobilization 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 Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, leader of Iran's secretive Quds Force and its most powerful general , has confirmed longtime suspicions by the Sunnis that al-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 U.S. troops left in late 2011. The militants also have 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 Rouhanim, told a crowd at a stadium near the Iraq border: "We declare to all superpowers, their mercenaries, murderers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not miss any effort in protecting these sacred sites."
    
Al-Maliki insists that the call to arms by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was for all Iraqis and claimed, without producing evidence, that those who responded included Sunnis.
    
That did not stop a new cycle of sectarian violence, with the spark coming this week from the Islamic State's posting on the Internet of pictures purporting to show its fighters killing scores of captured Shiite soldiers.
    
That was followed by the slaughter by Shiite militiamen of nearly four dozen Sunni detainees in the city of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, late Monday, as well as the discovery Tuesday of the bullet-riddled bodies of four young Sunnis in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad and a bomb attack that killed 12 in an outdoor market in the capital's Shiite Sadr City district.
    
On Wednesday, a bomb blast killed four and wounded 11 in the mostly Sunni district of Ghazaliyah in western Baghdad.
    
Meanwhile, the government in India said 40 construction workers have been seized near Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which Sunni fighters captured last week. Roughly 10,000 Indian citizens live and work in Iraq, though only about 100 are in violent, insecure areas like Mosul, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
    
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said its diplomats were investigating a Turkish media report that militants grabbed 60 foreign construction workers, including some 15 Turks, near the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk.
    
Ethnic Kurds now control Kirkuk, moving to fill a vacuum after the flight of Iraqi soldiers. They too are battling the Sunni extremist militants.
    
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday that his country had formally asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes against positions of the Islamic State.
    
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the U.S. has request from the Iraqi government for air power to stop the militants.
    
But U.S. officials say Obama has shifted his focus away from airstrikes as an immediate option, in part because there are few clear targets the U.S. could hit. Obama has made no final decisions and could ultimately approve limited strikes if stronger targets emerge.
    
"Where will it lead and will that be the beginning or the end?" Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said, when asked about possible U.S. airstrikes. "We don't know that. This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shias and the Sunnis and their allies. And I think whatever we do, it's not going to go away."
    
On Wednesday, Kurdish security and hospital officials said fighting had been raging since morning between Kurdish fighters and militants who are trying to take the town of Jalula, in restive Diyala province, 80 miles northeast of Baghdad.
    
Two civilians were killed and six Kurdish fighters were wounded, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
    
Also in the Kirkuk area, Sunni militants attacked a cluster of villages Tuesday night, killing at least 20 ethnic Turkomen Shiites and burning 13 Shiite homes, said Shalal Abdoul, the mayor of the nearby town of Tuz Khormato. Two Tukromen Shiites remain missing.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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