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Shiite cleric vows to 'shake ground' under feet of Iraqi insurgents

Photo: AFP

Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential Shiite clerics, vowed on Wednesday to “shake the ground” under the feet of Sunni militants waging an insurgency in the country, while voicing opposition to US military intervention.

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His remarks came as security forces continued to repel assaults on critical towns and infrastructure, though fighters from al Qaeda's Syrian franchise made a local alliance with the jihadist group leading the charge in Iraq, bolstering its offensive.

"We will shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and extremism," Sadr said in a televised speech from the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Sadr, whose movement long battled US forces during Washington’s nearly nine-year war in Iraq, also voiced opposition to American military advisers who began meeting Wednesday with Iraqi commanders combating the militants.

He said that he only supported "providing international support from non-occupying states for the army of Iraq".

The insurgency, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has seen swathes of five Iraqi provinces overrun,  has killed nearly 1,100 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and is threatening to tear the country apart.

Iraq's flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial offensive but have since at least somewhat recovered, and while Sadr's Mahdi Army militia remains officially inactive, fighters loyal to the cleric have nevertheless vowed to combat the militant advance.

Maliki warns against exploiting militant offensive

The government of Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki has come under fire for failing to do more to repel the insurgency and Sadr called for a national unity government to be created featuring “new faces”.

Elections held on April 30 saw incumbent Maliki emerge with by far the most seats, albeit short of a majority.

Sunni tribal leaders have called for the formation of a government that ignores the result of the election, which they describe as a sham.

Maliki reacted on Wednesday by warning rivals against exploiting the crisis to sideline him.

He said forming a unity government would amount to a “coup against the constitution and the political process “.

The beleaguered premier said such a move was “an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters”.

Washington has pressed for Iraq’s fractious political leaders to unite in the face of the insurgency, though they have shown little sign of coming together.

Speaking in Baghdad earlier this week US Secretary of State John Kerry said that US “support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective”.

US President Barack Obama has so far refrained from carrying out air strikes on the insurgents, as urged by Maliki, but American military advisers began meeting Iraqi commanders Wednesday, with Washington having offered up to 300.

Washington has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in 2011.

Al-Nusra Front pledges allegiance to ISIS

Meanwhile, in a sign the Iraqi military has performed better in recent days, loyalists fought off insurgent attacks Wednesday on a major air base and a key western town, after repelling assaults on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.

Militants and security forces clashed periodically overnight, but government troops maintained control of the Balad air base, while another offensive was repelled in Haditha in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

But the country was nevertheless hit by militant violence, with bombings and shelling south of Baghdad and in the disputed, ethnically mixed northern oil hub of Kirkuk killing 20 people.

The insurgents gained another boost on Wednesday when members of Syria's al Qaeda wing, the al-Nusra Front, pledged allegiance to ISIS in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, strengthening its control of the frontier.

ISIS supporters posted images online of what they said were al-Nusra fighters taking an oath of loyalty to ISIL in the town.

ISIS and the al-Nusra Front share hardline Sunni ideology but have periodically fought against each other in Syria.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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