Iraqi Shiite men parade their weapons Wednesday in the shrine city of Karbala, in central Iraq, after they volunteered to protect the Shiite holy sites in central and south Iraq in case of an attack by Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (Mohammed Sawaf / AFP via Getty Images)
Crisis in Iraq
BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite prime minister on Wednesday rejected calls to form an interim "national salvation government" that critics say would allow the country's squabbling sects to quickly present a unified front in the face of a growing threat by Sunni militants who have seized several cities this month.
U S. officials have pressed for the next Iraqi government to be more inclusive, seeking to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by an al-Qaida breakaway group that seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both side of the Syrian-Iraq border.
Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form a so-called national salvation government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
Al-Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed, saying the formation of a "national salvation" government would amount to a "coup against the constitution."
Instead he called on "political forces" to close ranks in the face of a growing threat by Sunni militants who have seized a large chunk of the country's north and west, but took no concrete steps to meet U.S. demands for greater political conclusiveness for minority Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's coalition, the State of the Law, won the most seats in that vote — 92 of the 328-seat chamber. In office since 2006, al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority in the chamber to hold on to the job for another four-year term. The legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in the chamber to form the next government.
"We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts," said al-Maliki. "The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy."
"We, despite the cruelty of the battle against terrorism, will remain loyal and faithful to the will and choices of the Iraqi people in bolstering their democratic experiment," he said.
He added that "rebels against the constitution" — a thinly veiled reference to Sunni rivals — posed a more serious danger to Iraq than the militants.
Al-Maliki's remarks were his first public statement since President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive government or risk his country descending into sectarian civil war.
Al-Maliki's government is struggling to repel advances led by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a well-trained and mobile force thought to have some 10,000 fighters and allies inside Iraq. The insurgency has also drawn support from disaffected Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.
The crisis has drawn the U.S. back to Iraq, although on a much smaller scale, nearly three years after the Americans withdrew from the country. Dozens of newly arrived U.S. military advisers and special operations forces began assessing the Iraqi forces in an effort to strengthen Baghdad's ability to confront the insurgency.
In fighting Wednesday, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.
A mortar shell also smashed into a house in Jalula, northeast of Baghdad, killing a woman and her two children. That town in the turbulent Diyala province is under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.
Also Wednesday, a report by Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran's western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were killed Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among the three killed, Fars quoted a local security official, Shahriar Heidari, as saying.
Heidari said an unspecified "terrorist group" was behind the attack but provided no details.
Iran has boosted border security amid the blitz offensive in neighboring Iraq, but a repeat of such attacks could provoke the Iranians to do more. The Shiite religious and political establishments have maintained close ties with al-Maliki's government. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared this week that his country will not spare any effort to protect Shiite shrines in Iraq.
Obama last week announced he would send as many as 300 advisers into Iraq to advise Iraqi security forces.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the American advisers already in Baghdad included two teams of special forces and about 90 advisers, intelligence analysts, commandos and support personnel needed to set up a joint operations center in the Iraqi capital. Another four teams of special forces would arrive in the next few days, Kirby said.
Iraqi officials have said the U.S. advisers were expected to focus on the better units the Americans had closely worked with before pulling out. Combined with approximately 360 other U.S. forces in and around the American Embassy in Baghdad to perform security, they would bring the total U.S military presence in Iraq to about 560.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.