Iraq PM pushes political solution to militant offensive

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded Thursday that political measures were needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq and threatens to tear it apart.

Baghdad: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded Thursday that political measures were needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq and threatens to tear it apart.

His remarks came during a meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who renewed Western calls for Iraqi leaders to unite in the face of a militant onslaught that has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than half a million.

On the ground, Iraqi forces launched a helicopter-borne assault aimed at opening the way for militant-held Tikrit to be retaken, while the autonomous Kurdish region`s president Massud Barzani further staked its claim to the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the advancing Sunni militants, risking ratcheting up already-high sectarian tensions.

"We should proceed in two parallel tracks," Maliki told visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, according to a statement issued by the premier`s office.

"The first one is work on the ground and military operations against terrorists and their gatherings," he said.

"The second one is following up on the political process and holding a meeting of the parliament (on time) and electing a head of parliament and a president and forming the government."

Maliki has thus far publicly focused on a military response to the two-week crisis, and his latest comments were his clearest yet regarding finding a political solution.

Earlier in an interview with the BBC, Maliki said the Syrian air force had carried out strikes against militants on the Syrian side of the Al-Qaim border crossing.

He added that Iraq had purchased several used Sukhoi fighter jets from Belarus and Russia.The Iraqi leader said that while Baghdad did not request the Syrian strikes, he "welcomed" any such move against militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The New York Times reported that predominantly Shiite Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq and sending military equipment to help Baghdad in its fight against the Sunni insurgents.

Iraq has appealed for US air strikes against the militants, but Washington has so far offered only up to 300 military advisers, the first of whom have begun work in Baghdad.

On Thursday, Iraqi forces swooped into militant-held Tikrit by helicopter, taking control of a strategically-located university after clashes with militants, officials said.

A senior army officer said the assault on Tikrit, the hometown of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, which has been held by militants since June 11, would open the way for the city and surrounding areas to be retaken.

Washington has urged Iraq`s fractious leaders to unite in the face of the militants, and Hague looked set to echo that message, saying in a statement that the "single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity."

He described the ISIL-led offensive as a "mortal threat to the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq" and added that the group also poses a "direct threat to other countries in the region."Washington has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in 2011.

In a televised speech from the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, powerful cleric Sadr vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the militants.

He said foreign powers "and especially forces of the occupier and regional states should take their hands off" the country, referring to the US and Iraq`s neighbours.

In an apparent effort to restrain worsening sectarian tensions, however, Sadr insisted that the militants did not represent Iraqi Sunnis, whom he said had suffered "marginalisation and exclusion".

Iraq`s flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial insurgent push, but have since begun regrouping, although they have yet to take back control of major cities lost to the militants.

Federal government forces pulled out of several ethnically-divided areas of Iraq, including northern oil city Kirkuk, enabling Iraqi Kurds to take de facto control of areas they have long wanted to incorporate into their autonomous region, over Baghdad`s strong objections.

Kurdish regional president Barzani toured Kirkuk on Thursday, in his first visit since the takeover, to inspect Kurdish forces deployed to defend the city against the militants to its west and south.

During the visit, he stated that if necessary, "we will bring all of our forces to preserve Kirkuk."

Government forces have, however, fought off insurgent attacks on a major air base and a key western town, after earlier repelling assaults on Iraq`s biggest oil refinery.

Maliki`s security spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began, while the UN puts the overall number of people killed at more than 1,000.

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