Maliki rejects call for unity government as militants attack Iraqi air base

The prime minister said a unity government, which the US has urged to reduce Sunni support for the insurgency in Iraq, would be a 'coup against the constitution.'

Ahmed Saad/Reuters
Iraqi security forces take up positions during an intensive security deployment west of Baghdad on Tuesday.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for unity today but rejected the formation of a national emergency government, even as militants attacked one of Iraq’s largest air bases and the first US military advisers arrived in Baghdad.

In his weekly address to the nation, Mr. Maliki gave what the Associated Press describes as a “vague call” for political forces to reconcile under the principles of Iraq’s constitution, without giving specific promises of inclusiveness for minority Sunnis. 

Maliki firmly rejected calls for a “national salvation” government in the televised address, saying such calls amounted to “a coup against the constitution and the political process,” according to Agence France-Presse.

International observers, particularly in the US, have increasingly called upon Maliki to form a unity government in the face of the Sunni insurgency sweeping across Iraq. Iraq's Sunnis have been marginalized by Maliki's predominantly Shiite government, spurring them to join up with militants from the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) as they advanced into Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad on Monday urged Maliki to “be inclusive and share power” in order to boost Iraq’s defense.

Observers fear that Iraq will be split between its Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish strongholds, with the Kurds and ISIS creating new facts on the ground, as The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday.

Fighting continued today, as ISIS militants and Sunni tribes surrounded one of Iraq’s largest air bases and battled Iraqi forces in Yathrib, a town about 55 miles north of Baghdad, Reuters reports.

Insurgents have surrounded a massive air base nearby, which was known as "Camp Anaconda" under U.S. occupation, and struck it with mortars. Eyewitnesses said the air base had been surrounded on three sides.

The air base, Balad, was a large US military site during the Iraq War and still holds valuable equipment, including Russian-made transport helicopters, surveillance planes, and trucks with heavy machine guns, the Daily Beast reports. It is not known whether the insurgents know how to operate them.

Jessica Lewis, the research director for the Institute of the Study of War and a former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq, told the Daily Beast that loss of air power for the Iraqi military would be a severe blow. “It would mean that ISIS can beat the best that the Iraqi Army can muster, not just the northern units that have been ignored. It would mean strategic defeat for the Iraqi Army.”

The US, while reluctant to reengage, is providing some assistance. The first of the 300 US military advisers that will be sent to Iraq arrived in Baghdad late Tuesday, and began work Wednesday, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby. 

Of the troops who arrived Tuesday, a team of 40 is assessing the capabilities of Iraqi troops and 90 are setting up a joint operations command center in Baghdad. The rest of the advisers are expected to arrive in the coming days and there is no timeline for how long they will stay, Kirby said, according to the Financial Times.

US military aircraft are flying up to 35 daily intelligence-gathering missions over Iraq, the Financial Times reports. 

The United Nations reported Tuesday that at least 1,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Iraq this month and called the number “very much a minimum.”

A briefing on ISIS by The Christian Science Monitor explains that the group “was born out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was established after the US-led invasion in 2003 and ultimately broke with Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan. Its goal was to build a strict Islamic state based around Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.”

The group failed in its objectives, but when Syria’s war broke out in 2011, hardened Iraqi fighters flowed into Syria and joined up with Syrians and other foreign fighters. What emerged was a group with a vision of a transnational caliphate in Syria and Iraq – at least for starters.

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