Iraq struggles to drive back Sunni militants

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Baghdad's forces struggled Thursday to break a military stalemate with Sunni militants, as US officials reached out to key leaders to push for an end to political chaos in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered an amnesty aimed at undercutting support for the militants who have overrun large areas of Iraq, after the new parliament's first session ended in farce, with MPs walking out instead of working on government formation.

With calls for politicians to come together unsuccessful, Washington contacted Iraqi and regional players individually, with President Barack Obama calling Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Vice President Joe Biden talking to former Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni leader.

The White House said Mr Biden and Mr 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 could play in a new unity government in Baghdad, seen as vital to meeting the challenge of Islamic State (IS) jihadists, who have led the militant offensive, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Mr Maliki's amnesty call 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, excluding those involved in killings.

Mr 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, Mr Maliki on Wednesday rejected an assertion by the autonomous Kurdish region that its control of disputed territory is here to stay.

Mr Barzani has said Kurdish forces would maintain control of disputed areas into which they have moved during the militant offensive, and that a referendum will be held in the coming months on independence for Kurdish 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.

A police lieutenant colonel said security forces on Thursday clashed with militants near Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, which they have been unsuccessfully fighting to retake in a highly-touted operation for over a week.

The cost of the conflict has been high for Iraq's forces, with nearly 900 security personnel among 2,400 people killed in June, the highest figure in years, according to the United Nations.

The day before, Salaheddin province's governor, Ahmed Abdullah Juburi, said security forces were "advancing slowly because all of the houses and burned vehicles (en route to Tikrit) have been rigged with explosives, and militants have deployed lots of roadside bombs and car bombs."

Mr Juburi said it would be days before security forces could make a concerted push into the city, the capital of Salaheddin province.

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, announcing on Tuesday that a second group of five aircraft had arrived in Iraq, implicitly as part of that deal.

But the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said the three Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jets shown landing in Iraq in a video released Tuesday by the defence ministry are likely from Iran, which has pledged to aid Iraq against the militants.

IISS also noted that most of Iran's Su-25s are actually from the air force of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, with seven Iraqi planes having escaped east during the Gulf War in 1991.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.