A defiant Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday rejected calls for an interim "national salvation government" in his first public statement since President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive leadership or risk a sectarian civil war.
US officials, meanwhile, said there are indications that Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq yesterday in an attempt to slow the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.
Officials said the strikes appeared to be the work of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, which is locked in a bloody civil war with opposition groups. The target of the attacks was the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has been fighting along with the rebels opposed to Assad and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
The White House said intervention by Syria was not the way to stem the insurgents, who have taken control of several cities in northern and western Iraq. "The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place," said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman. "The solution to Iraq's security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime, but the strengthening of the Iraqi security forces to combat threats." US officials believe the leadership in Baghdad should seek to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by the Islamic State.
The insurgency has drawn support from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.
Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace 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.
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 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.
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, 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 Colonel Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.
A mortar shell also smashed into a house in Jalula, northeast 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.
Also today, a report by Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran's western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were killed last night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among the three killed, Fars quoted a local security official, Shahriar Heidari, as saying. Heidari said an unspecified "terrorist group" was behind the attack but provided no details.
In an unusual twist for the long-time foes, the US and Iran find themselves with an overlapping interest in stabilizing Iraq's government, and a US official said today that Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq.