BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki broadcast a joint appeal for national unity yesterday with bitter Sunni critics of his Shi’ite-led government – a move that may help him win U.S. help against rampant Islamists threatening Baghdad.
Just hours after Maliki’s Shi’ite allies had angrily vowed to boycott any cooperation with the biggest Sunni party and his government had accused Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia of backing “genocide”, the premier’s visibly uncomfortable televised appearance may reflect U.S. impatience with its Baghdad protege.
In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met behind closed doors and then stood frostily before cameras as Maliki’s Shi’ite predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari read a statement denouncing “terrorist powers” and supporting Iraqi sovereignty.
U.S. President Barack Obama is considering military options to push back al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has swept the Sunni north of the country over the past week as the Shi’ite-led army has crumbled.
But in return Washington want Maliki to do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among minority Sunnis which ISIL has exploited to win support among tribal leaders and former followers of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion,” Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of “reviewing the previous course” of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.
Earlier, Maliki’s government accused Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, of backing ISIL – something Riyadh denies.
“We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally and for its outcome – which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites,” a government statement said.
Maliki has blamed Saudi Arabia for supporting militants in the past, but the language was unprecedented. On Monday, Riyadh blamed sectarianism in Baghdad for fuelling the violence.
Maliki, who has been buoyed by a call by Iraq’s senior Shi’ite cleric for citizens to rally to the armed forces, dismissed four generals for abandoning the big northern city of Mosul a week ago and said they would face court martial.
Scores were killed on Tuesday in a battle for another provincial capital, close to Baghdad, and fighting shut Iraq’s biggest refinery at Baiji, hitting fuel and power supplies.
Government forces said they repelled an overnight attempt by insurgents to seize Baquba, capital of Diyala. Some residents and officials said scores of prisoners from the local jail were killed. There were conflicting accounts of how they had died.
ISIL fighters who aim to build a Muslim caliphate across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier launched their revolt by seizing Mosul and swept through the Tigris valley towards Baghdad.
The fighters, who consider all Shi’ites to be heretics deserving death, pride themselves on their brutality and have boasted of massacring hundreds of troops who surrendered.
Western countries, including the United States, have urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to rebuild national unity as the only way of preventing the disintegration of Iraq.
“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “I have been urging Iraqi government leaders including Prime Minister al-Maliki to reach out for an inclusive dialogue and solution of this issue.”
But the prime minister, in power for eight years and effective winner of a parliamentary election two months ago, seems instead to be relying more heavily than ever on his own sect, who form a majority long oppressed under Saddam.
Though the joint statement late on Tuesday said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi’ite militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.