The United States confirmed today it was flying armed drones over Baghdad to defend Americans, as Iraqi forces fought for a strategic university and launched air strikes in militant-held Tikrit.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric meanwhile urged the country's leaders to unite, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded political measures are needed to defeat the jihadist-led offensive that has killed more than 1,000 people and overrun major parts of five provinces.
In further fallout from the crisis, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region declared there was no going back on Kurdish self-rule in disputed territory, including ethnically divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish fighters.
International agencies also raised alarm bells over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town in recent days and 1.2 million displaced by unrest in Iraq this year. A senior American official said that the US military was flying "a few" armed drones over Baghdad to defend American troops and diplomats in the city if necessary.
But officials said the drones would not be used for offensive strikes against the Sunni Arab militant offensive, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but involving other groups as well.
Iraqi forces swooped into Tikrit University by helicopter yesterday, and a police major said that there were periodic clashes there today.
A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were targeting militants in Tikrit with air strikes to protect forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the city. Troops are deployed in areas around Tikrit for the attack, the officer said.
Another senior officer said taking the university is an important step towards regaining control of Tikrit, the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, which the militants seized on June 11. The operation is the latest effort to regain the initiative after security forces wilted in the face of the initial insurgent onslaught launched on June 9. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said today Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other towns from which federal forces withdrew in the face of the militant advance. "Now, this (issue) ... is achieved," he said, referring to a constitutional article meant to address the Kurds' decades-old ambition to incorporate the territory in their autonomous region in the north over the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.
Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Barzani said: "We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these (disputed) areas. "There were Iraqi forces in these areas, and then there was a security vacuum, and (Kurdish) peshmerga forces went to fill this vacuum."
Also today, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered within the majority Shiite community, urged Iraqi leaders to unite and form a government quickly after parliament convenes on July 1. Sistani's remarks echoed those of Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who today was in Jeddah as Washington unveiled a USD 500 million plan to arm and train moderate Syrian Sunni rebels, whom Kerry said could help fight ISIL-led militants.
Yesterday, Maliki, who has publicly focused on a military response to the crisis, said political measures were also necessary, ahead of the July 1 opening of the new parliament elected on April 30.
In an interview with the BBC, meanwhile, Maliki said Syrian warplanes had targeted militants on the Syrian side of the Al-Qaim border crossing, which is controlled by ISIL. Iraq has appealed for US air strikes against the militants, but Washington has only offered up to 300 military advisers, the first of whom are in the country. The authorities have also bought at least eight fighters from Russia, and six more currently in Belarus, in a deal valued by Vedomosti newspaper at up to $500 million.
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. Maliki's security spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began, while the UN puts the overall death toll at nearly 1,100. The International Organisation for Migration warned, meanwhile, that aid workers could not reach tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the violence, and called for humanitarian corridors to be established.