Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said today that he stands with the Syrian government in the fight against Islamic extremists after the Syrian air force struck militant positions at a border crossing between the two countries.
There are conflicting reports as to exactly where the strike occurred. Maliki told the BBC that it took place inside Syria, but US military officials cited by AP reported that it was on the Iraqi side. Hardline Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have overrun large sections of northern Iraq over the past two weeks and are now threatening the capital of Baghdad.
In an interview with BBC Arabic, Maliki said: "Yes, Syrian jets did strike Qaim inside the Syrian side of the border... There was no co-ordination involved. But we welcome this action. We actually welcome any Syrian strike against ISIS... But we didn't make any request to Syria. They carry out their strikes and we carry out ours and the final winners are our two countries."
Neither his comments nor the strike will be welcomed by the West, which is opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. Also not likely to be welcomed was Maliki's announcement that Iraq had bought used fighter jets from Russia and Belarus because of delays in obtaining F-16s from the US. Making a reliance on Russian backing clear was also a tactic employed by Assad's regime.
Assad coming out in support of Maliki's beleaguered government is the latest potential alliance in a crisis that has already created some unexpected and uneasy bedfellows. The US has deployed military advisors to Iraq to help government forces. However, longtime US foe Iran is also providing active military support. There had even been speculation of cooperation between the two.
Also today, Iraq made its first steps in forming a new government. Vice President Khodair al-Khozaei, a Maliki ally, said a new parliament should be convened on July 1, AP reported.
Maliki's political bloc won most seats — 92 out of 328 — in elections held on April 30, but fell far short of a majority and will need support from other groups to govern. However, attempts to form a new coalition have, and will likely continue to be, hampered by anger at the prime minister's perceived sectarian policies and failure to promote national unity, both of which have fueled Sunni anger.
Maliki has also refused to form an interim inclusive government, despite repeated international pleas. British Foreign Secretary William Hague was the latest to urge Maliki to do so when he turned up on a surprise visit to Baghdad today. "The single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity," he said in a statement. US Secretary of State John Kerry made similar calls earlier in the week.
Maliki has remained defiant. He recently described local pressure as "an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters."
ISIS-led militants continued to take ground around the capital, including Mansouriyat al-Jabal and four natural gas fields there, Al Jazeera reported. Sunni forces also launched an artillery bombardment on majority Christian villages in the north of the country. Recent reports also indicate that more fighting has broken out in Tikrit after government helicopters landed in a stadium at the city's university.
The outcome of the battle for Iraq's largest oil refinery in Baiji, which has raged for several days, is also still uncertain. Government outlets claim that it is now under control of Iraqi armed forces, but these reports have been contradicted by statements published elsewhere.
As the militants continue their advance, senior Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said in a televised speech that his supporters would "shake the ground" in taking them on. He also said he was opposed to the presence of the US military personnel on the ground in Iraq, further complicating matters.
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