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Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, on December 3, 2011. Al-Maliki blames Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni royals for backing militant incursion to Baghdad (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, on December 3, 2011. Al-Maliki blames Saudi Arabia's ruling Sunni royals for backing militant incursion to Baghdad

(Hadi Mizban/AP)

Iraq's al-Maliki lashes out at Saudi Arabia’s Sunni royals Add to ...

Defying President Barack Obama’s plea for moderation and inclusiveness, Iraq’s beleaguered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out Tuesday at Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Arab power and one of Washington’s key allies in the Middle East.

In an angry outburst certain to inflame passions in a region riven along sectarian lines, the Iraqi leader accused Saudi ruling royals of backing genocidal war criminals.

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Saudi Arabia is “responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites,” Mr. al-Maliki said in a furious statement as Sunni militias closed on Baghdad.

Fierce fighting raged less than 50 kilometres away and advancing Sunni militants forced Iraq’s biggest oil refinery to shut down. To the west, Sunni forces were at the outskirts of the sprawling capital and car bombs exploded in Baghdad’s densely populated Sadr City slum.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has funnelled money and munitions to Sunni rebels battling Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad but claims it doesn’t back the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the black-garbed jihadis spearheading the Sunni insurgency now threatening to dismember Iraq.

Mr. Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops back into Iraq to save the embattled Shiite-dominated regime and conditioned U.S. help on Mr. al-Maliki embracing Sunni elements in his government.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama will meet with senior congressional leaders on the situation in Iraq. Last fall, when he toyed with air strikes against Syria, there was loud and outraged opposition in Congress and Mr. Obama backed down, opting instead to seek Russian help for a deal that left Mr. al-Assad in power but removed his chemical weapons.

Fierce clashes erupted Tuesday as Shiite militias and elite army units fought Sunni militants in Baquba, barely 50 kilometres north of Baghdad. The clashes, in sharp contract to the headlong flight last week, indicated forces loyal to Mr. al-Maliki were prepared to defend traditional Shiite areas.

“The most likely outcome of that fighting will be a vicious stalemate at or north of Baghdad, basically along Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide,” Kenneth Pollack, an expert on Middle Easter affairs and a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis. “That is also not surprising because it conforms to the pattern of many similar intercommunal civil wars. In Syria today, in Lebanon in the 1980s, Afghanistan in the 1990s, and elsewhere, that is where the front lines tend to stalemate.”

Fears grew that the Syrian civil war, now spilling into neighbouring Iraq, could spread across the region along the Sunni-Shia fault line.

“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders,” warned Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General.

Reports surfaced of the slaughter, by Iraqi army soldiers, of scores of Sunni prisoners at a prison in Baquba, apparently a reprisal for the horrific massacre of of hundreds Shiite soldiers shot while lying in freshly dug-trenches by masked ISIL militants several days ago. The Iraqi military said the inmates died during an assault by militants but morgue officials told the Associated Press that the dead has close-range bullet wounds to the head and chest.

A cycle of reprisal atrocities could signal a return to the bloody sectarian violence that tore apart much of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.

The rapid ISIL-led advance, across mostly-Sunni areas, has redrawn the region’s political balance. The Obama administration is openly weighing co-operation with the region’s Shia heavyweight, Iran, if Tehran can use its considerable leverage to press Mr. al-Maliki.

Some regard the overture as misguided.

“It would be the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain who backs U.S. air strikes.

But after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s little enthusiasm for wading back into the Middle East quagmire. Mr. Obama will find little backing for military action on Capitol Hill.

“Where will it lead and will that be the beginning or the end?” asked Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. “This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shiite and the Sunnis … Whatever we do, it’s not going to go away.”

“After a decade of war, we’ve all had enough,” Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader who would be crucial to any congressional resolution backing the use of U.S. military power should Mr. Obama opt for air strikes, said.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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