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Iraq PM pushes political solution to militant offensive

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded Thursday that political measures were needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq and threatens to tear it apart.

BAGHDAD: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded Thursday that political measures were needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq and threatens to tear it apart.

His remarks came during a meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who reiterated Western calls for Iraqi leaders to unite in the face of a militant onslaught that has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than half a million.

On the ground, fighters continued to target key towns and infrastructure but security forces appeared to be performing better than in the initial days of the advance, when they largely wilted.

Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr meanwhile vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the advancing Sunni militants, risking ratcheting up already-high sectarian tensions.

"We should proceed in two parallel tracks," Maliki told visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague, according to a statement issued by the premier's office.

"The first one is work on the ground and military operations against terrorists and their gatherings," he said.

"The second one is following up on the political process and holding a meeting of the parliament (on time) and electing a head of parliament and a president and forming the government."

Maliki has thus far publicly focused on a military response to the two-week crisis, and his latest comments were his clearest yet regarding finding a political solution.

Earlier in an interview with the BBC, Maliki said the Syrian air force had carried out air strikes against militants on the Syrian side of the Al-Qaim border crossing.

He added that Iraq had purchased several used Sukhoi fighter jets from Belarus and Russia.

The Iraqi leader said that while Baghdad did not request the Syrian strikes, he "welcomed" any such move against militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The New York Times reported meanwhile that predominantly Shiite Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq and sending military equipment to help Baghdad in its fight against the Sunni insurgents.

Iraq has appealed for US air strikes against the insurgents, but Washington has so far offered only up to 300 military advisers, the first of whom have begun working in Baghdad.

The Syrian strikes came after ISIL-led insurgents took control of the town of Al-Qaim on the Iraqi side of the frontier, providing them with a strategic route into conflict-hit Syria, where the jihadist group is also active.

On Wednesday, fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, Al-Nusra Front, also made a local pledge of allegiance to ISIL, further bolstering the group's control of the border area.

ISIL aims to create an Islamic state straddling Iraq and Syria and has commandeered an enormous quantity of cash and resources during this month's advance.

Washington has urged Iraq's fractious leaders to unite in the face of the militants, and Hague looked set to echo that message, saying in a statement that the "single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity."

He described the ISIL-led offensive as a "mortal threat to the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq" and added that the group also poses a "direct threat to other countries in the region."

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.

In a televised speech from the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, powerful cleric Sadr vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the militants.

He said foreign powers "and especially forces of the occupier and regional states should take their hands off" the country, referring to the US and Iraq's neighbours.

In an apparent effort to restrain worsening sectarian tensions, however, Sadr insisted that the militants did not represent Iraqi Sunnis, whom he said had suffered "marginalisation and exclusion".

Iraq's flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial insurgent push, but have since begun regrouping, although they have yet to take back control of major cities lost to militants.

Central government forces pulled out of several ethnically divided areas of Iraq, including northern oil city Kirkuk, enabling Kurdish forces to take de facto control, but at the risk of stoking long-standing tensions.

Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani toured Kirkuk on Thursday, in his first visit since the takeover, to inspect Kurdish forces deployed to defend the city against the militants to its west and south.

Government forces have, however, fought off insurgent attacks on a major air base and a key western town, after earlier repelling assaults on Iraq's biggest oil refinery.

And on Thursday, dozens of soldiers were helicoptered into the militant-held city of Tikrit, the first major counter-offensive on the city in several days.

Maliki's security spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began, while the UN puts the overall number of people killed at more than 1,000.

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