Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.
U.S. President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shia-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.
(What is ISIL and what do they want in Iraq? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
SAMARRA: GOVERNOR PLANS TO STRIKE BACK
In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of al-Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIL and its allies back.
A source close to al-Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw ISIL seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the U.S.-trained army crumbled.
Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: “Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh. These troops will not stop,” he added, saying government forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.
ISIL: MILITANTS’ ADVANCE SLOWS NEAR CAPITAL
This week, the militants’ lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shiites fearful of ISIL, which views them as heretics to be wiped out. Samarra has a major Shia shrine. And it was for killings of Shiites in nearby Dujail that al-Maliki had Saddam hanged in 2006.
The participation of Shi’ite militias and tens of thousands of new Shia army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed ISIL to carve out territory where it aims to found an Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Pockets of fighting continue. Government forces appeared to be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the country’s largest, 100 kilometres north of Samarra, residents said.
At Duluiya, between Samarra and Baghdad, residents said a helicopter strafed and rocketed a number of houses in the early morning, killing a woman. Police said they had been told by the military that the pilot had been given the wrong coordinates.
UNITED STATES: OBAMA READY FOR ‘TARGETED’ ACTION
While a new reality is emerging with the key cities of Mosul and Tikrit for now out of reach for the government, Obama has put U.S. military power back at Baghdad’s disposal, while insisting he will not send ground troops back, two and half years after he ended the occupation that began in 2003.
Announcing the despatch of advisers, the president said he was prepared to take “targeted” military action later if deemed necessary, thus delaying but still keeping open the prospect of air strikes to fend off a militant insurgency. The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.
Iraqis appeared content with Obama’s decision. The al-Maliki ally said Obama’s offer of aid was appropriate and included the establishment of an intelligence liaison center that would allow for future U.S. air strikes on ISIL and other groups.
NOURI AL-MALIKI: WILL HE STAY OR GO?
Obama also delivered a stern message to al-Maliki on the need to take urgent steps to heal Iraq’s sectarian rift, something U.S. officials say the Shiite leader has failed to do and which ISIL has exploited to win broader support among the Sunnis.Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for al-Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him.
While Obama did not join calls for al-Maliki to go, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister.
Warning that Iraq’s fate “hangs in the balance,” Obama said: “Only leaders with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together.”
Al-Maliki’s Shia alliance won the most votes in April parliamentary elections, and U.S. officials said the Obama administration was pressing Iraqi authorities to accelerate the process of forging a new governing coalition and for it to be broad-based, including Sunnis and Kurds.
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