US Vice President Biden calls Iraq's Kurdish leader

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Vice President Joe Biden called Kurdish leader Massud Barzani on Wednesday, on a day when the autonomous region was accused by Iraq's leader of harbouring jihadists.

The accusation by Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki represented another blow to American hopes that religious and ethnic factions in the country will form a united government to challenge marauding Sunni radicals.

The White House said Biden and Barzani agreed on the need to "accelerate the government formation process pursuant to the time-lines set forth in the Iraqi constitution."

A parliamentary session last week to pick a new government ended in disarray as lawmakers traded threats and walked out.

Leaders typically agree key positions in a package, with the post of speaker generally going to a Sunni Arab, the premiership to a Shiite Arab and the presidency to a Kurd.

Biden also expressed condolences for the loss of Iraqis in fighting with Islamic State (IS) extremists who have captured large swaths of the country.

Biden's office did not immediately respond when asked whether the vice president's call came as a result of Maliki's fiery comments earlier on Wednesday attacking the Kurds.

The vice president has long served as President Barack Obama's pointman on Iraq - dating back to the days when there were thousands of US troops in the country.

Biden has made multiple calls in recent days to key Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political leaders in Iraq, as the United States urges an urgent process to form a government.

The US readout also did not dwell on Barzani's previous call for an independence referendum for Iraqi Kurds, a step the White House has said it would not support.

Maliki potentially complicated his efforts to form a government encompassing Kurds, Shia and Sunnis by accusing Kurdish leaders in the northern city of Arbil of hosting militant groups.

"Honestly, we cannot be silent over this and we cannot be silent over Arbil being a headquarters for Daash, and the Baath, and Al-Qaeda and terrorist operations," Maliki said on television.

Daash is the former Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which Kurdish forces are in fact fighting in the north, while Baath refers to the banned party of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regime killed tens of thousands of Kurds.