Top US officials have reached out to key regional leaders to help resolve the political chaos in Iraq even as the Iraqi premier offered a general amnesty to undercut support for a raging jidhadist-led offensive.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s offer on Wednesday came after a farcical opening to the new parliament in Baghdad, despite international calls for Iraq’s fractious politicians to unite urgently to combat insurgents, as the military struggles to seize the initiative against the Sunni militants.
With hopes of a unity government waning, Washington reached out to regional players with President Barack Obama calling Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Vice President Joe Biden contacting the speaker of Iraq’s previous parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni leader.
The White House said Biden and Nujaifi agreed on the importance of Iraqis “moving expeditiously to form a new government capable of uniting the country.”
Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile phoned Kurdish leader Massud Barzani and stressed the important role the Kurds would play in a new multi-sect government in Baghdad, seen as vital to meeting the challenge of Islamic State (IS) jihadists who have seized vast tracts of Iraqi territory, according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Maliki’s surprise move meanwhile appeared to be a bid to split the broad alliance of jihadists, loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein and anti-government tribes waging the offensive.
“I announce the provision of amnesty for all tribes and all people who were involved in actions against the state” but who now “return to their senses,” Maliki said.
But he excluded those involved in killings, and it was not immediately clear how many people might be eligible.
Analysts have said some form of political reconciliation is needed to convince Sunni Arabs angry with the Shiite-led government to turn against their co-religionists and jihadists.
The vast majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority do not actively support the IS jihadist group spearheading the offensive, but analysts say anger over perceived mistreatment by the authorities means they are less likely to cooperate with the security forces.
‘No longer business as usual’
Maliki’s announcement came a day after an eagerly awaited opening to the Council of Representatives descended into chaos and ended in disarray without a speaker being elected.
UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov said Iraqi politicians “need to realise that it is no longer business as usual.”
Under a de facto agreement, Iraq’s premier is a Shiite Arab, the speaker Sunni Arab and the president a Kurd.
Presiding MP Mahdi Hafez said the legislature would reconvene on July 8 if leaders were able to agree on senior posts.
In another sign of political discord, Maliki rejected Wednesday an assertion by the autonomous Kurdish region that its control of disputed territory is here to stay.
Barzani has also said a referendum will be held in the coming months on independence for the oil-rich region.
On the ground, Iraqi forces were struggling to break a stalemate with militants after initially wilting before the onslaught. They have since performed better, albeit with limited offensive success.
But the cost has been high. Nearly 900 security personnel were among 2,400 people killed in June, the highest figure in years, according to the United Nations.
Thousands of troops, backed by tanks, artillery and aerial cover, have made limited progress in retaking Tikrit, which fell on June 11, as a highly publicised operation appears to have hit difficulties.
“They are advancing slowly because all of the houses and burned vehicles (en route to the city) have been rigged with explosives, and militants have deployed lots of roadside bombs and car bombs,” said Ahmed Abdullah Juburi, governor of Salaheddin province of which Tikrit is the capital.
Juburi said it would be days before security forces could make a concerted push into the city.
Maliki’s security spokesman also told reporters that loyalists had clashed with militants south of Baghdad.
In an effort to break the stand-off, the government has bought more than a dozen Sukhoi warplanes from Russia.
It said it aimed to begin using them in combat Wednesday, but it was unclear if that has happened.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has said three Sukhoi ground attack jets shown landing in Iraq in a video released by the defence ministry are likely from Iran, which has pledged to aid Iraq against the militants.
Loyalists are battling militants led by the IS, which Sunday declared a “caliphate,” an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire, and ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief.