Top US officials have warned Iraq’s leader against “sectarian” policies as President Barack Obama weighs calls for airstrikes on Sunni insurgents bearing down on Baghdad.
The sharp criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came on Thursday 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 existence.
The swift advance of fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, has sparked international alarm, with the UN calling the crisis “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 launch air strikes on the advancing militants, but there were no signs on Thursday 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 message that Maliki needs to lead all Iraqis, not just Shi’ites.
He told the Iraqi leader in a telephone call 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.
“There is very little that could have been done to overcome the degree to which the government of Iraq had failed its people,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Former US commander in Iraq David Petraeus also rounded on the premier.
Petraeus, lauded for reviving America’s fortunes during the worst period of a costly eight-year war, warned at a conference in London that Washington risked becoming an “air force for Shi’ite militias” and supporting “one side of what could be a sectarian civil war”.
Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and sent personnel to bolster security at its Baghdad embassy, but Obama insists a return to combat is not in the cards.
The United States 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.
Some abandoned their vehicles and uniforms when faced with the insurgents.
The Sunni fighters have been led by the powerful 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.