A defiant Nouri al-Maliki has rejected calls for an interim “national salvation government” in Iraq intended to undermine the Sunni insurgency by presenting a unified front, calling it a “coup against the constitution”.
The Iraqi PM’s televised address to the nation was his first public statement since US President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive government or risk his country descending into sectarian civil war.
US officials believe the leadership in Baghdad should seek to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by an al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which has seized a chunk of north-western Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the country’s border with Syria.
The insurgency has drawn support from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.
The crisis has drawn the US back to Iraq, although on a much smaller scale, nearly three years after the Americans withdrew from the country. Dozens of newly arrived US military advisers and special operations forces began assessing the Iraqi forces in an effort to strengthen Baghdad’s ability to confront the insurgency.
In the face of militant advances that have virtually erased Iraq’s western border with Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan, Mr al-Maliki’s focus has been the defence of Baghdad, a majority Shiite city of seven million fraught with growing tension.
The city’s Shiites fear they could be massacred and the revered al-Kazimiyah shrine destroyed if Isis fighters capture Baghdad. Sunni residents also fear the extremists, as well as Shiite militiamen in the city, who they worry could turn against them.
The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite men.
Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace Mr al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
Mr al-Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed following recent national elections in which his bloc won the largest share of parliament seats.
“The call to form a national salvation government represents a coup against the constitution and the political process,” he said. He added that “rebels against the constitution” – a thinly veiled reference to Sunni rivals – posed a more serious danger to Iraq than the militants.
He called on “political forces” to close ranks in the face of the growing threat by insurgents, but took no concrete steps to meet US demands for greater inclusion of minority Sunnis.
“We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts,” said Mr al-Maliki. “The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy.
“We, despite the cruelty of the battle against terrorism, will remain loyal and faithful to the will and choices of the Iraqi people in bolstering their democratic experiment,” he said.
Mr al-Maliki’s coalition, the State of the Law, won the 92 seats of the 328-member parliament in the election. In office since 2006, Mr al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority to hold on to the job for another four-year term.
The legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in parliament to form the next government.
In fighting today, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.
A mortar shell also smashed into a house in Jalula, north-east of Baghdad, killing a woman and her two children. That town in the turbulent Diyala province is under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.