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Iraq ‘retreats’ after Tikrit assault stalls Saudis boost border security

BAGHDAD, July 16, (Agencies): Iraqi forces have withdrawn from the militant-held city of Tikrit after their new offensive met heavy resistance, in a blow to the government effort to push back Sunni insurgents controlling large parts of the country. The failure highlights the difficulties of Baghdad’s struggle to recapture territory from the insurgents who seized Mosul, Tikrit and other cities last month in a rapid offensive which threatens to fragment Iraq on ethnic and sectarian lines. The setback came as Iraqi politicians named a moderate Sunni Islamist as speaker of parliament on Tuesday. That was a long-delayed first step towards a power-sharing government urgently needed to confront the militants, who are led by the al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State.

It is unclear if the election of Salim al-Jabouri as speaker will break the broader deadlock over Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bid to serve a third term. He has ruled since the April election as a caretaker. Government troops and allied Shi’ite volunteer fighters retreated from Tikrit before sunset on Tuesday to a base four km (2.5 miles) south after coming under heavy mortar and sniper fire, a soldier who fought in the battle said.

Residents said there was no fighting on Wednesday morning in Tikrit, which lies 160 kms (100 miles) north of Baghdad. It is a stronghold of ex-army officers and loyalists of executed former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party who allied themselves with the Islamic State-led offensive last month. Tuesday’s military attack was launched from Awja, Saddam’s birthplace some 8 kms (5 miles) south of the city, but ran into heavy opposition in the southern part of the city.
 
Pictures published on Twitter by supporters of the Islamic State showed a fighter holding a black Islamist flag next to a black armoured car it said had been abandoned by a military SWAT team, as well as vehicles painted in desert camouflage — one of them burnt out — which it said retreating troops left behind. The stunning advance in the north and west by the militants over the past month has put Iraq’s very survival in jeopardy, as its politicians remain divided over forming a government to confront the insurgency.
A shared resentment at Maliki’s style of rule, which his critics say has marginalised Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, may have bolstered the Islamic State’s offensive last month.
The Shi’ite leader has defied demands from Sunnis and Kurds that he step aside for a less polarising figure. He also faces challenges from within the National Alliance, a Shi’ite umbrella group that includes Maliki’s State of Law bloc and rivals.
After quickly picking Salim al-Jabouri as speaker on Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers argued bitterly for hours over his Shi’ite deputy, suggesting they are still far from a deal to complete the formation of a new government or a decision on the fate of Maliki.
 
Now that parliament has picked a speaker, it has 30 days to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to nominate a prime minister.
Since Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution was adopted in 2005, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shi’ite majority, the speaker a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd. Each of the three is meant to have two deputies, drawn from the other two groups.
An official from Maliki’s State of Law bloc said the group understood that it would not be able to push through Maliki’s nomination for a third term and there was a need for “transition”, but did not say how that might come about.
 
Maliki has given no indication he is willing to step aside.
“Prime Minister Maliki can’t and shouldn’t be pushed out,” the official told Reuters, adding there had been no formal discussion yet on possible nominees for prime minister.
In the town of Dhuluiya southeast of Tikrit, where Sunni tribesmen and local police have been fighting militants for days, government forces sent from the city of Samarra pushed the militants out on Tuesday night, eyewitnesses said.
Islamic State gunmen had overrun government offices on Sunday morning and tried to take the main police station, local police and eyewitnesses said. The town is 70 kms (45 miles) north of Baghdad.
Residents escaped the fighting by boat on the River Tigris after militants bombed the bridge and blocked off roads leading out of the town. The destruction of the bridge also blocked the sending of reinforcements from the military base near the Shi’ite town of Balad, across the river.
 
Control of Dhuluiya has passed several times from local fighters and police into the hands of militants and back again.
The group now calling itself the Islamic State rampaged across the border between Syria and Iraq a month ago and has since declared a caliphate across a swathe of the Middle East from Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad.
But if its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself ruler of all the world’s Muslims, has his eyes on extending his caliphate south, he will face a far more formidable frontier at the border with Saudi Arabia.
 
Since the group then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched its lightning offensive last month in Iraq, Riyadh has sent thousands of troops to the border area.
They are beefing up a frontier already protected by a series of earth berms and fences, forming an exclusion zone stretching 10 kilometres deep into Saudi territory. Its entire 850-km length is scanned by radar and infrared video cameras, monitored around the clock at a control room.
Last month King Abdullah pledged to take “all measures” to protect Saudi Arabia, both from Sunni ISIL, which Saudi Arabia has labelled a terrorist organisation, and also from Shi’ite militia in Iraq who have mobilised to fight the insurgents.
 
At least 1,000 army soldiers, 1,000 national guardsmen and three helicopter units have arrived to reinforce the border area near the town of Arar since ISIL’s advance in June, General Faleh al-Subai’i, commander of Saudi border guards in the area, told visiting reporters this week.
Saudi officials have not made public the total number of extra troops they have sent to the frontier, so far declining to comment on the accuracy of a report by Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television which put the number of reinforcements at 30,000.
 
Although alarmed by ISIL’s advance, border officials describe the Shi’ite militia — allied to the government in Baghdad and to Saudi Arabia’s enemy Iran — as the bigger threat.
“ISIL is not important. It’s a basic terrorist group without any military capability or suchlike. The most important one is the Shi’ite militia, which is organised with planning behind it,” Subai’i said.
Such views infuriate Baghdad, which accuses Riyadh of doing too little to stop ISIL fighters who pride themselves in killing Shi’ite civilians.
Riyadh strongly denies it has helped ISIL, and its state media and clerics preach against the group, but it has openly supported other Sunni militant groups fighting in Syria, and hundreds of Saudi nationals are believed to have joined ISIL.
 
Unlike the heavily-trafficked Syria-Iraqi border, which includes some of the most important commercial routes in the Middle East, the Saudi-Iraqi frontier is no hub for international trade. The post near Arar was last opened in October, when 65,000 Iraqi pilgrims crossed for the haj.
With the crossing closed, weeds grow high in the middle of the road to Iraq and a customs shed is carpeted in dust.
The fences and berms are hard to breach. No more than 12 people have been caught trying to cross the border illegally since the defences were build two years ago, officials said.
 
Sanctions
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging all countries to enforce sanctions against the Islamic State extremist group that has captured a vast stretch of territory in Iraq, warning that “terrorism” must not be allowed to steer the country away from its path toward democracy. In a report to the Security Council obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, the UN chief strongly condemned the upsurge of violence at the hands of the militant group and its supporters and called on the 193 UN member states, especially Iraq’s neighbors, “to come together and support Iraq in its fight against terrorism.” The extremist group, as an offshoot of al-Qaida, is subject to an arms embargo and targeted financial sanctions and travel bans. Ban also urged Iraq’s leaders to unite behind a political process acceptable to all parties and form a new government “in the spirit of national unity and inclusiveness.”
 
The report was written before Iraqi lawmakers broke a two-week deadlock Tuesday and elected a moderate Sunni as speaker of parliament. It was the first step toward forming a new government that is widely seen as crucial to confronting the militants, but lawmakers now face the most contentious decision: choosing a prime minister. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled the country since 2006, is under intense pressure to step aside but is insisting on staying for a third term. Ban stressed that “the spirit of national unity and reconciliation, non-sectarianism and non-violence recently expressed by Iraq’s political and religious leaders must prevail at this critical time.”

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