ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – UK Foreign Secretary William Hague made an urgent appeal for political unity in Baghdad against a jihadi blitz, but amid indications Iraq’s Shiite prime minister was turning to Iran and Syria in face of a Western reluctance for military involvement.
Hague’s unannounced visit came just as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed that Syrian warplanes had carried out border raids against the militants, who include the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The Sunni jihadis have captured cities and key installations, such as two border posts with Syria, since beginning their rampage about a fortnight ago. They vow to march on Baghdad to oust the Shiite government.
The Iraqi military has largely collapsed since the rebel advance began with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. But as Hague prepared to go into talks in Baghdad, state television showed army troops in control of the Baiji refinery, the country’s largest, which reportedly had fallen.
“The immediate priority, and the focus of my discussions today, is to help and encourage Iraqi leaders to put sectarian conflicts behind them and unite across all political parties,” Hague said in Baghdad, adding he would also be meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous northern Kurdistan Region.
“The Iraqi state is facing an existential threat, with huge ramifications for the future stability and freedom of this country. The single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity,” Hague said.
He expressed the same view as US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Baghdad Monday before traveling to the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
But in the time that Kerry left Baghdad and Hague arrived, Maliki reneged on a pledge to the US secretary that he would quickly form a salvation government to stop Iraq from splintering into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish portions.
“The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process,” he said on state television Wednesday.
Hague, however, came with an urgent appeal for unity.
“As a friend of Iraq, the UK believes the urgent priority must be to form an inclusive government that can command the support of all Iraqi people and work to stop ISIS in its tracks,” he said.
The British minister said the UK can provide diplomatic, counter-terrorism and humanitarian support to Iraq. He said his government has already provided five million pounds in emergency relief to Iraq and “there is more that we will be able to do in support of a unified Iraqi government.”
But Maliki, who has pleaded for US air strikes against the militants, has only received 300 advisors from Washington, which has been his main Western backer up to now.
Maliki confirmed that warplanes in Syria — where ISIS is also fighting and where he has helped the regime receive weapons from Iran by opening Iraqi territory — had carried out raids against the militants on the border with Iraq.
“There was no coordination involved, but we welcome this action,” he told the BBC. “We welcome any Syrian strike against ISIS, because this group targets both Iraq and Syria,” he said. “The final winners are our two countries.”
The avowed goal of ISIS is to create an Islamic state on territory straddling both Iraq and Syria.
Following the Syrian air raids earlier this week, reportedly inside Iraq, the White House warned Damascus to stay out of the war next door.
As Maliki refused to budge, ISIS militants were reported to be fighting only an hour away from Baghdad.
Maliki’s rejection of Western appeals for a unified government was seen as an indication he is counting on support from elsewhere, namely Shiite Iran.
The New York Times reported that Tehran is supplying Maliki with tons of military equipment every day. It said that the very powerful commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, has been in Iraq to coordinate the fight against insurgents.
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