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Iraq PM accuses Kurds of harbouring jihadists

Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday accused the country's autonomous Kurdish region of harbouring jihadists, further ratcheting up tension despite calls for Iraq's leaders to unite against a Sunni militant offensive.

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Wednesday accused Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region of harbouring jihadists, further ratcheting up tensions despite calls for the country's leaders to unite against a Sunni militant offensive.

And in scenes reminiscent of the country's brutal sectarian war of 2006-2007, when tens of thousands were killed, the authorities found the bodies of 53 men who had been bound and executed in a confessionally-mixed province south of Baghdad.

A jihadist-led offensive that started a month ago and soon overran swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and heaped pressure on Maliki as he bids for a third term in office.

The incumbent on Wednesday potentially damaged his efforts to retain the post by turning on the Kurdish leadership based in the northern city of Arbil and accusing them of hosting militant groups behind the onslaught.

"Honestly, we cannot be silent over this and we cannot be silent over Arbil being a headquarters for Daash, and the Baath, and Al-Qaeda and terrorist operations," Maliki said in his weekly televised address, without giving an explanation or details on the unlikely alliance.

Daash is the former Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which Kurdish forces are in fact fighting against in north Iraq, while Baath refers to the banned party of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regime killed tens of thousands of Kurds.

"They (militant groups) will lose, and their host will lose also," the premier said.

The comments will likely bolster supporters of independence for the Kurdish region in northern Iraq that plans to hold a referendum on the issue.

Though Kurdish parliamentary backing is not necessary to form a government, the Kurds are seen as crucial to maintaining a united front against insurgents led by the IS.

Maliki's remarks were the latest example of persistent disunity among Iraq's politicians despite calls from international powers and influential clerics for Iraq's leaders to come together.

Bickering blocs have so far failed to form a government, more than two months after April 30 polls, with little sign of an agreement in sight.

A parliamentary session last week ended in disarray as lawmakers traded threats and walked out.

The country's leaders typically agree key government positions in a package, with the post of speaker generally going to a Sunni Arab, the premiership to a Shiite Arab and the presidency to a Kurd.

- Seeking third term -

Despite telling AFP in 2011 that he would not seek a third term, Maliki vowed last week he would not bow to mounting international and domestic pressure to step aside and allow a broader consensus government.

The crisis, which the UN has warned threatens "Syria-like chaos", has sharply polarised the country's various communities and raised the spectre of a return to all-out sectarian bloodletting.

In scenes harking back to the brutal 2006-07 period, the authorities discovered the corpses of 53 men in orchards south of Babil provincial capital Hilla, all with gunshots to the head and chest.

A morgue official said the victims were killed at least a week ago.

It was not immediately clear why the men were killed, officials said.

Although attacks have taken place in Babil province since the IS-led offensive began, the area where the bodies were found was not close to the sites of other recent violence.

Iraqi forces have largely regrouped after the debacle that saw soldiers abandon their positions as jihadist-led militants conquered second city Mosul and advanced to within a short drive of Baghdad.

But while Iraq has received support, including equipment, intelligence and advisers from the United States, Russia, Iran and even Shiite militias it once shunned, efforts to battle the militant offensive have languished.

A nearly two-week operation to retake Saddam's hometown of Tikrit has made little progress and with government forces still looking for a major victory, the jihadists of IS appear to be brimming with confidence.

A few days after declaring the establishment of a "caliphate", the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- second only to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the US most wanted list -- delivered a Friday sermon in Mosul's largest mosque.

On Wednesday, militants made a show of force in areas south and west of the northern city of Kirkuk, driving in dozens of vehicles -- including some seized from the Iraqi army -- with weapons and flags of the type flown by IS, a senior security official and witnesses said.

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