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Iraq forces gear up to attack rebels
- Pressure on PM as senior Shia cleric urges the speedy formation of a new govt

Baghdad, June 20 (Reuters): Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad today, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive towards the capital prompted the US to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.

President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shia-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the Sunni minority.

Speculation that Maliki might be forced aside was heightened when the country’s senior Shia cleric urged a speedy formation of a new government following the ratification this week of the results of a parliamentary election held in April.

Maliki’s Shia bloc won the most seats but, with stalemate among Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish groups, the new assembly has yet to sit. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wrote in a Friday sermon that a constitutional deadline for convening to choose a new prime minister and government should be respected.

In office since 2006, Maliki has irritated Washington by the way he has alienated Sunnis and there has been speculation he has also lost the confidence of allies in Iran as Tehran and the US look to end decades of mutual hostility to prevent anti-western, anti-Shia zealots taking over Iraq.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100 km north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIS and its allies back.

A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw ISIS seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley towards Baghdad as the US-trained army crumbled.

Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television today telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: “Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.

This week, the militants’ lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shias fearful of ISIS, which views them as heretics to be wiped out. Samarra has a major Shia shrine.

Maliki had former dictator Saddam Hussein, overthrown by a 2003 US-led invasion, hanged three years later for killings of Shias in nearby Dujail. The participation of Shia militias and tens of thousands of new Shia army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed ISIS to carve out territory.

 
 
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