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Members of the Al-Abbas brigades, who volunteered to protect the Shiite Muslim holy sites in Karbala against Sunni militants fighting the Baghdad government
Iraqis battle for militant-held Tikrit SISTANI NUDGES BAGHDAD ON POLITICAL PICKS

BAGHDAD, June 27, (Agencies): Iraqi forces fought for a strategically located university campus outside Tikrit Friday and bombarded the city in an effort to retake it from Sunni Arab insurgents. The military operation came after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded that political measures will also be needed to defeat the jihadist-led offensive that has killed nearly 1,100 people overrun major parts of five provinces. In further fallout from the crisis, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region declared there was no going back on Kurdish self-rule in disputed territory, including ethnically divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish fighters.

Iraqi forces swooped into Tikrit University by helicopter on Thursday, and a police major said that there were periodic clashes between insurgents and security forces on the campus on Friday A senior army officer said that Iraqi forces were carrying out a major wave of air strikes against militants in Tikrit to protect the forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the city.

Iraqi troops are deployed in areas around the city for the assault, the officer said. Another senior officer said taking the university is an important step in regaining control of Tikrit, the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, which was seized by Sunni Arab militants on June 11. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said Baghdad could no longer object to Kurdish self-rule in Kirkuk and other towns from which federal forces pulled out in the face of the insurgent advance. “Now, this (issue) ... is achieved,” he said, referring to a constitutional article meant to address the Kurds’ decades-old ambition to incorporate the territory in their autonomous region in the north over the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.

Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Barzani said: “We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these (disputed) areas. “There were Iraqi forces in these areas, and then there was a security vacuum, and (Kurdish) peshmerga forces went to fill this vacuum.” Iraq’s flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial insurgent push, pulling out of a swathe of ethnically divided areas, including the northern oil hub of Kirkuk. Despite Barzani’s declaration, it is likely that the territory row will continue to haunt Iraq for years to come. Meanwhile, the most influential Shi’ite cleric in Iraq called on the country’s leaders to choose a prime minister before parliament sits next week to begin forming a government, to blunt a Sunni insurgency that threatens to dismember the country.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who commands unswerving loyalty from many Shi’ites in Iraq and beyond, said political blocs should agree on the next premier, parliament speaker and president before the newly elected legislature meets on Tuesday. Sistani’s extraordinary intervention into politics forces the pace of a process that took nearly 10 months after Iraq’s last election in 2010, and means the fate of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki — serving as caretaker after an election in April and battling to keep his job — could be decided within days. The United States and other countries are pushing for a new, inclusive government to be formed as quickly as possible to counter the insurgency led by an offshoot of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Over the past fortnight, militants have overrun most majority Sunni areas in north and western Iraq with little resistance, advancing to within an hour’s drive of Baghdad. Iraq’s million-strong army, trained and equipped by the United States, largely evaporated in the north after the militants launched their assault with the capture of the north’s biggest city Mosul on June 10. Thousands of Shi’ite volunteers have responded to an earlier call by Sistani for all Iraqis to rally behind the military to defeat the insurgents. Under Iraq’s governing system put in place after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the prime minister has always been a Shi’ite, the largely ceremonial president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni

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Divvying up the three posts before parliament meets would require leaders from each of Iraq’s three main ethnic and sectarian groups to commit to the political process and resolve their most pressing problems, including Maliki’s fate. “What is required of the political blocs is to agree on the three (posts) within the remaining days to this date,” Sistani’s representative said in a sermon on Friday, referring to Tuesday’s constitutional deadline for parliament to meet.

Maliki, whose Shi’ite-led State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April election, had been positioning himself for a third term before the onslaught began. Some Shi’ite leaders have suggested he may be replaced with a less polarising figure, although his closest allies say he aims to stay. Sunnis accuse Maliki of excluding them from power and repressing their sect, driving armed tribal groups to back the insurgency led by ISIL. The president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region has also said Maliki should go. Maliki allies said Sistani’s call for a quick decision was not aimed at sidelining the premier, but at putting pressure on political parties not to drag out the process with infighting as the country risks disintegration. Sunnis are divided among themselves over the speaker’s post and the Kurds have yet to agree a candidate for president. Iraqi helicopters fired on a university campus on Friday in Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein and second major city to fall to insurgents more than a fortnight ago. Government commandos launched an airborne assault on the campus on Thursday, a rare push back into rebel-held territory. “My family and I left early this morning. We could hear gunfire, and helicopters are striking the area,” said Farhan Ibrahim Tamimi, a professor at the university who fled Tikrit for a nearby town. ISIL fighters’ dramatic advance after capturing the main northern city Mosul on June 10 has transformed Iraq, threatening to destroy the country and reignite the wholesale sectarian slaughter that saw at least 100,000 Iraqis killed during US occupation from 2003-2011. US President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground forces back, but has sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces troops, to help the government fight the insurgents. ISIL fighters who aim to set up a caliphate on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border consider all Shi’ites heretics deserving death. They proudly boasted of executing scores of Shi’ite government soldiers captured in Tikrit.

 

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