A Pentagon official says the U.S. has started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. civilians and military forces in the Iraqi capital.
The official said the flights started in the last 24 to 48 hours to bolster manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights the military has been sending over violence-wracked Iraq in recent weeks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record.
The official stressed that the armed drones are to provide U.S. protection and that President Barack Obama still has not authorized airstrikes against Sunni militants who have been over-running territory in other parts of the country.
(What is ISIL and what do they want in Iraq? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)
TIRKIT: IRAQI FORCES LAUNCH HELICOPTER ASSAULT
Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus in Tikrit on Friday to dislodge insurgents who overran the city in an onslaught that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions and brought them close to Baghdad.
Iraqi forces flew commandos into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after coming under fire from insurgents.
Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, fell a fortnight ago to Sunnis led by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which split from al-Qaeda.
A rights group said analysis of photographs and satellite imagery “strongly indicate” that ISIL staged mass executions in Tikrit after seizing it on June 11 early in their offensive.
ISIL killed between 160 and 190 men in at least two locations over three days, Human Rights Watch said. Numbers may be much higher but the difficulty of locating bodies and getting to the area had prevented a full investigation, it added.
KARBALA: TOP SHIA CLERIC CALLS FOR CONSENSUS ON NEW PM
Iraq’s top Shia cleric on Friday called on political blocs to agree on the next prime minister before the newly elected parliament sits next week, stepping up pressure on political leaders to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government in the face of Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory.
The Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also said he wanted the political blocs to agree on the next parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets on Tuesday.
A cleric representing al-Sistani, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, told worshippers in a Friday sermon at the holy city of Karbala that selecting the three before parliament meets would be a “prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election but needs allies to form a cabinet. Al-Maliki confirmed this week that he would abide by the constitutional deadlines to set up a new government, after pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Baghdad for crisis talks earlier this week. Under the official schedule, parliament will have 30 days from when it first meets on Tuesday to name a president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister.
Al-Maliki is fighting for his political life in the face of an assault that threatens to dismember his country. Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shia groups have demanded he leave office, and some ruling party members have suggested he could be replaced with a less polarizing figure, although close allies say he has no plan to step aside.
(Learn more about the Shia-Sunni divide and Iraq’s deadly sectarian war with Patrick Martin’s easy explanation)
ISIL: WASHINGTON HOPEFUL TRIBAL GROUPS WILL SWITCH SIDES
Iraq’s million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after the Sunni Muslim fighters led by ISIL launched their assault with the capture of the north’s biggest city Mosul on June 10. The fighters have been halted about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad and on its western outskirts. However, they have pressed on with their advances in areas including the religiously mixed Diyala province and are consolidating their gains in northwestern Iraq.
Fighters from ISIL – which says all Shia Muslims are heretics who should be killed – have been helped in their advance by other, less radical groups who share their view that Sunnis have been persecuted under the Shia-led government.
Washington hopes that armed Sunni tribal groups, which turned against al-Qaeda during the U.S. “surge” offensive of 2006-2007, can again be persuaded to switch sides and back the government, provided that a new cabinet is more inclusive.
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