BAGHDAD-Top US officials warned Iraq’s leader against “sectarian” policies as President Barack Obama on Thursday weighed calls for air strikes on Sunni insurgents bearing down on Baghdad.
The sharp criticism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came as he scrambled to beat off a militant onslaught that has seen an entire province and parts of three others fall out of government control in an offensive that could threaten the country’s very existence.
The swift advance of fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has sparked international alarm and the United Nations has warned that the crisis was “life-threatening for Iraq”.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced in the nine days of fighting and an unknown number killed, while dozens of Indians and Turks have been kidnapped.
Baghdad has formally requested Washington to launch air strikes on the advancing militants, but there were no signs US military action was imminent.
Instead US officials castigated Maliki, who is being blamed in Washington for causing Iraq to splinter after discriminating against the minority Sunni community.
Vice President Joe Biden drove home the US message that Maliki needs to lead all Iraqis, not just Shiites.
He told the Iraqi leader in a telephone call that he must govern in an “inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq’s population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq’s diverse communities,” a White House statement said.
The top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, too blamed the Iraqi government for the deepening sectarian mire.
Former US commander in Iraq David Petraeus criticised the Iraq premier.
He warned that Washington risked becoming an “air force for Shiite militias” and supporting “one side of what could be a sectarian civil war” if political reconciliation was not agreed.
Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and sent military personnel to bolster security at its Baghdad embassy, but Obama insists a return to combat in Iraq is not in the cards.
The US spent billions of dollars over several years training and arming Iraqi security forces after disbanding the Sunni-led army following the 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
But the security forces wilted when faced with the militant offensive on June 9 which saw insurgents quickly capture Mosul, a city of some two million people, and then parts of Salaheddin, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.
The Sunni fighters have been led by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but also include a wide coalition of other Sunni Arab militant groups, as well as loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Though the alliance has made significant territorial gains, the wildly divergent ideologies of its constituent groups means it may fracture over time, analysts say.
And while they struggled in the early part of the offensive, Iraq’s security forces appear to be performing better in recent days, managing to make advances in certain areas, though militants have made their own gains elsewhere.