Thursday 23 October 2014

Islamic state 'is threat to region'

Published 02/07/2014 | 13:07

Nouri al-Maliki warned an extremist group's declaration of an Islamic state is a threat to the entire region (AP)

An extremist group's declaration of an Islamic state in territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria is a threat to the entire region, Iraq's prime minister has warned.

Nouri al-Maliki said the announcement this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) that it has unilaterally established a caliphate "is a message to all the states in the region that you are inside the red circle now".

He said in his weekly address that "no one in Iraq or any neighbouring country will be safe from these plans".

The Sunni extremist group has over-run huge areas of northern and western Iraq in recent weeks, linking up with territory already under its control in neighbouring Syria.

Isis declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of its new self-styled state governed by Sharia law and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.

The blitz across Iraq appears to have halted, at least for now, as it reaches Shiite-majority areas, where resistance is tougher, and as it seeks to consolidate its control of the territory already in hand.

In what appeared to be a bid to peel away some of the extremist group's allies among Iraq's Sunni tribes, Mr al-Maliki offered an amnesty "for all tribes and people who got involved in any act against the state".

"They should return to their senses. We are not excluding anybody, even those who committed misdeeds, apart from those who killed or shed blood," he said. "I welcome them to return and stand with the other tribes that have taken up arms."

Mr al-Maliki offered a similar amnesty after militants seized two cities in central Iraq early this year, but few if any Sunnis took up his offer.

With its recent gains, Isis now controls an area of land that stretches from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in central Iraq. That has sent tremors across the region, particularly in the capitals of Iraq's neighbours - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran.

The United States, which withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq in 2011, is also keeping close tabs on events.

President Barack Obama has been hesitant to send much military aid to Iraq for fear of dragging the US into another Middle East war.

The White House has ruled out sending in combat troops, but this week sent more soldiers to Baghdad to help bolster the US Embassy. All told, officials say, there are about 750 US troops in Iraq - about half of which are advising Iraqi counter-terrorism forces.

US manned and unmanned aircraft are also flying dozens of reconnaissance missions a day over Iraq to gather intelligence.

The Sunni insurgent's offensive is fuelled, at least in part, by the Sunni minority's long list of grievances with Mr al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government. They accuse Mr al-Maliki, who himself is Shiite, of treating them like second-class citizens and unfairly targeting them with the security forces.

Iraq's new parliament met for the first time on Tuesday since April elections amid hopes for the swift formation of a new government. Those hopes quickly faded after the legislature deadlocked less than two hours into the meeting when Sunnis and Kurds walked out.

Mr Al-Maliki acknowledged the failure of the first session, but expressed hope for a quick resolution when parliament meets next week.

"God willing, in the next session, we will overcome it through co-operation and openness and reality in choosing people and a mechanism that would lead us to a solid political process," he said.

The main sticking point is the job of prime minister, which holds the main levers of power. Under an informal system that took hold after the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq's prime minister is chosen from the Shiite community, the president from the Kurdish minority and the speaker of parliament from the Sunni community.

Mr al-Maliki, who has held the post since 2006, is being pressed to step aside as his failure to promote reconciliation has been blamed for stoking the Sunni insurgency led by al Qaida splinter group Isis. Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom accuse Mr al-Maliki of breaking promises and attempting to monopolise power, demand that he be replaced.

But Mr al-Maliki has shown no willingness publicly to bow out. His bloc won the most votes in April elections, which traditionally would give him first crack at forming a new government.

The current crisis in Iraq, however, has altered political calculations, and many of Mr al-Maliki's former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him.

Press Association

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