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(Top) EA-6B Prowler lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (Above) A column of smoke rises from an oil refinery in Beiji
Sistani repeats call for ISIL ouster - India cancels labor travel clearance Move to make Maliki go ... Abdul-Mahdi, Ayad Allawi may replace

BAGHDAD, June 20, (Agencies): Iraq’s top Shiite cleric urged all of its people Friday to unite and expel Sunni Muslim insurgents, as Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came under growing pressure at home and abroad. The call came after US President Barack Obama stopped short of acceding to Maliki’s appeal for air strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), prompting neighbouring Shiite Iran to charge that Washington lacked the “will” to fight terror.

A swift militant offensive, led by the jihadist ISIL, has overrun swathes of northern and central Iraq, threatening the United States’s already damaged legacy in the country. Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani’s comments at Friday prayers contained thinly veiled criticism that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, was to blame for the nation’s crisis over the blitz by Sunni insurgents led by an al-Qaeda splinter group that seeks to create a new state spanning parts of Iraq and Syria and ruled by its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Al-Sistani’s remarks come as US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq soon to press its government to share more power. While al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most seats in parliament in the Iraq’s April 30 election, his hopes for a third term are now in doubt with rivals challenging him from within the broader Shiite alliance. In order to govern, his bloc must first form a coalition with other parties. And with Iraq asking the US for airstrikes to temper the militants’ advance — especially as the insurgents were said to be preparing Friday for another assault on the country’s biggest oil refinery — al-Maliki appears increasingly vulnerable. “It is necessary for the winning political blocs to start a dialogue that yields an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis,” al-Sisanti said in a message delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. The Iranian-born al-Sistani, who is believed to be 86, lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

Arecluse, he rarely ventures out of his home and does not give interviews. Iraq’s majority Shiites deeply revere him, and a call to arms he made last week prompted thousands of Shiites to volunteer to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was once part of al-Qaeda. Al-Sistani’s call to arms has given the fight against the Islamic State militants the feel of a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis.

His office in Najaf dismissed that charge, and al-Safi on Friday said: “The call for volunteers targeted Iraqis from all groups and sects. ... It did not have a sectarian basis and cannot be.” Al-Maliki has been seeking to place the blame for the chaos on the Islamic State and not his perceived exclusion of the Sunnis. However, questions persist on how much support, if any, the Islamic State enjoys among the Sunni population in areas it now controls.

Ali Hatem al-Salman, a prominent tribal Sunni leader and a critic of al- Maliki, said Sunni tribesmen would eventually fight the extremist Islamic State. Using the commonly used Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, he told The Associated Press on Thursday: “Daash themselves know that the tribes will push them out. ... There can’t be any trust given to Daash.” Al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government long has faced criticism of discriminating against Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish populations.

But it is his perceived marginalization of the once-dominant Sunnis that sparked recent violence reminiscent of Iraq’s darkest years of sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion. Iraq’s newly elected parliament must meet by June 30 to elect a speaker and a new president, who in turn will ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government within 15 days.

Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove al-Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice-president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is also a Shiite, and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. With Iraq in turmoil, al-Maliki’s rivals have mounted a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.

On Thursday, their effort received a boost from Obama, who said: “Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.” An “inclusive agenda” has not been high on the priorities of al-Maliki, however. Many of al-Maliki’s former Kurdish and Shiite allies have been clamoring to deny the prime minister a third term in office, charging that he has excluded them from a narrow decision-making circle of close confidants. Al-Maliki’s efforts last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.

Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back, and over the past week or so the militants have also taken over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. Less than three years after Obama heralded the end of America’s war in Iraq, he said Thursday he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers to help quell the insurgency. They would join up to 275 being positioned in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the US Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests. But he was adamant that US troops would not be returning to combat.

Despite the deteriorating conditions, Obama has held off approving airstrikes sought by the Iraqi government. The president said he could still approve “targeted and precise” strikes if the situation on the ground required it, noting that the US had stepped up intelligence gathering in Iraq to help identify potential targets. US officials say manned and unmanned US aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day on intelligence collection missions. Not all Shiites welcomed the announcement that more Americans were heading to Iraq. AShiite cleric, Nassir al-Saedi, warned that the 300 advisers would be attacked. Al-Saedi is loyal to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia fought the Americans in at least two rounds of street warfare during their eight-year presence in Iraq. “Our message to the occupier: ... We will be ready for you if you are back,” he told a Friday sermon attended by al-Sadr supporters in Baghdad’s Sadr City district.

Mohammed al-Khalidi, a Sunni lawmaker who favors a replacing al-Maliki’s government with a more inclusive one involving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, said he thought “Obama’s statement was balanced and reasonable.” “But,” he added, “US officials should be aware that the situation in Iraq needs an immediate remedy because Iraq is heading to the unknown.” Meanwhile, India announced it would stop granting its nationals permission to travel to Iraq for work on Friday as it stepped up efforts to secure the release of 39 Indians abducted by gunmen. “The overseas affairs ministry has stopped granting immigration clearances to Indians travelling to Iraq for one month,” foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters. T

he clearance is mostly required for Indians seeking employment in Iraq, where security forces are currently battling Sunni Muslim militants who have taken over large swathes of the country. Those travelling for other purposes were also advised to cancel their plans, Akbaruddin said. The spokesman further confirmed that one of a group of 40 Indian construction workers abducted on Monday in the militant- held city of Mosul had escaped. “One person from the group managed to escape and has been in touch with our embassy in Baghdad. We can also confirm that (the) others are safe,” Akbaruddin said. The families of several of the men met Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj on Thursday, who promised the utmost would be done to secure their release. “We are knocking on all doors. As diplomats we knock on front doors, now we are knocking on back doors as well as trap doors,” Akbaruddin said. India’s government estimates that around 120 of its nationals, including the 39 captured in Mosul and another group of 45 nurses holed up in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, have been caught up in the unrest. “Atotal of 16 of these 120 have managed to leave the country in two batches of eight each,” the ministry spokesman said. India was also asking the Iraqi government to alter an order that required foreign nationals to leave from their port of entry, and to ensure those crossing into neighbouring states were not denied access, Akbaruddin said.

Kuwait Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Khaled Sulaiman Al- Jarallah denied Friday the existence of any Kuwaiti support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In press statements, Al-Jarallah discounted categorically any report claiming that some Kuwaiti entities offer support to ISIL, saying that such a report would be “absolutely inaccurate.” “There is no financial funding from inside Kuwait to ISIL or any other organization of its type.

All reports purporting that miss the mark.” “Aid and assistance are provided for the Syrian people for humanitarian purposes only and if this aid reaches the wrong hands, which would be unfortunate, the onus is not on the giver of the aid. “Commenting on the concerns raised recently by some MPs about the existence of sleeping cells of ISIL sympathizers in Kuwait and their demand to the government to get ready to counter this danger, Al-Jarallah said “If there are elements that cooperate with ISIL or any other terrorist group this would be a danger not only for Kuwait but also for the whole region.” “He went on to say that “It is difficult to claim that there is no danger.

We have to admit that Kuwait and the whole region are facing a danger which requires serious vigilance, prudence and work to safeguard the home front in all Gulf cooperation Council member states.” Replying to a question about a division between Kuwaiti Sunnis and Shiites with regard to the stance of the developments in Iraq, Al-Jarallah said “We have never felt such a division and it is not expected at all.” “ Kuwaiti Sunnis and Shiites are boarding one boat and they are united in the face of any danger that threatens the security of Kuwait or any other country in the region,” he said. “We are totally convinced that Kuwait is strong by its people, cohesion of the home front as wells with its friends and its international relations. And this is our view of the situation.”

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