Iraq's PM under mounting fire as US holds back on strikes

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq's leader faced mounting criticism on Friday for his Shi'ite-led government's failure to do more to woo the Sunni Arab minority as US President Barack Obama promised military advisers but no immediate air strikes.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - once seen as acceptable to both long-time foes Iran and the US - was criticised by a litany of American officials as well as Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, who also warned that time was running out to expel Sunni militants who have seized a vast swathe of northern and north-central Iraq.

Mr Obama, who based his political career on ending US involvement in Iraq, has insisted the United States was not slipping back into the morass, and warned Mr Maliki and his Shi'ite ally Iran that promoting sectarianism would spell disaster.

Teheran hit back, saying that Mr Obama lacked a "serious will" to fight terrorism after he left unheeded a request from Baghdad for US air strikes against the militants.

The militant offensive, led by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group but also involving loyalists of executed Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein, has further threatened Washington's already-damaged legacy in Iraq.

"Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," Mr Obama said on Thursday, as he announced the offer of up to 300 military advisers.

The offer was the most concrete action announced by Washington since the crisis erupted on June 9 but fell short of Iraq's request for air strikes and drew derision from Iran, which had offered its cooperation despite decades of enmity.

"Delaying the fight against terrorism and ISIL and putting conditions on it have fuelled suspicions and doubts about the United States' objectives in Iraq," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said.

"Obama's comments show the White House lacks serious will in fighting terrorism in Iraq and the region."

The crisis in Iraq has raised questions over whether Mr Maliki, who is seeking to retain the premiership after an April 30 general election, will continue in office.

US Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and David Petraeus, the former top US commander in Iraq, have all either called for Mr Maliki to be more inclusive, or outright criticised him.

Mr Obama said Thursday that Mr Maliki's actions could dictate the fate of the country, amid a growing feeling in Washington that the Iraqi leader would do best by moving on.

"The test is before him and other Iraqi leaders as we speak," Mr Obama said, calling for an end to mistrust, deep sectarian divides and political opportunism.

Former US ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey said there has been a "definite uptick" in Washington's criticism of Maliki.

"Everybody is a bit at fault in Iraq on the sectarian thing, but Maliki over time did become more" sectarian, said Mr Jeffrey, who left the post in mid-2012.

"He just isn't the solution to a unified Iraq."

Domestically, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose stature dwarfs that of any Shi'ite politician in Iraq, called for Iraqis to band together against the jihadists before it is too late, but also said the country's next government must be "effective" and "avoid past mistakes".

If ISIL is not "fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning," his spokesman announced on his behalf.

The battle for the strategic northern town of Tal Afar entered its sixth day on Friday, with witnesses saying security forces clashed with militants who still hold significant ground.

Shi'ite-majority Tal Afar is located along a strategic corridor to Syria, and is the largest town not to fall to militants in the northern province of Nineveh, most of which has been overrun.

The crew of an Iraqi gunship apparently mistook a police patrol for militants early Friday in the town of Dhuluiyah, north of the capital, opening fire and killing a woman, officials and a witness said.

More than a million people have been displaced in Iraq by the current militant offensive and unrest earlier this year, the United Nations said.

A senior army officer told AFP that Iraq needs US help.

"We need American support to stop terrorism and eliminate it... especially through air strikes against specific targets," the lieutenant general said on condition of anonymity.

But Mr Obama insisted on Thursday that there will be no return of US combat troops to Iraq, where Washington waged a bloody and costly war for nearly nine years before withdrawing in late 2011.

Washington has already positioned an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and is flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq.

It is also still considering drone strikes against the militants.

Senior US officials said privately that special forces being sent to advise Iraqi forces could be used to call in air strikes if necessary.

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