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Iraq’s tribal leaders and clerics offer to join unity government


Fleeing to safety: Young Iraqi Yazidi refugees fill bottles with water at the Newroz camp in Hasaka province in north eastern Syria on Thursday after fleeing advances by Islamic State militants in Iraq. Nearly 1,000 Iraqi families have taken refuge in the Syrian province of Hasaka despite the raging civil war there. Photo – AFP

Baghdad: Tribal leaders and clerics from one of the minority communities of Iraq said Friday they would be willing under certain conditions to join a new government that hopes to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State militants that threatens Baghdad.

Members of the minority made their offer after Iraq's most influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, threw his weight behind prime minister-designate Haider Al Abadi, who is trying to form an inclusive government in a country beset by daily bombings, abductions and executions.

Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying the vast western province of Anbar, where frustrations with the sectarian policies of outgoing premier Nuri Al Maliki have pushed some to join an insurgency led by the Islamic State fighters.

The tribal leaders and clerics said representatives in Anbar and other provinces have drawn up a list of demands to be delivered to Abadi through politicians, their spokesman Taha Mohammed Al Hamdoon said.

He called for government troops and militia forces to suspend their attacks in Anbar to allow for talks.

"It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing," Hamdoon said in a telephone interview, referring to strikes on cities. "Let the bombing stop and withdraw and curtail the militias until there is a solution for the wise men in these areas."

Ready to work
Separately, one of Anbar's most powerful tribal leaders, with thousands of men at his command, said on television he was ready to work with Abadi, if he respected interests.  Ali Hatem Suleiman, a leading figure in an earlier alliance with US and Iraqi forces against Al Qaeda, said he could consider joining a new campaign against the Islamic State.  

Sistani said earlier that the handover to Abadi offered a rare opportunity to resolve political and security crises.

Maliki finally stepped down as prime minister under heavy pressure from allies at home and abroad late on Thursday, clearing the way for Abadi who is a party colleague but has a reputation as a less confrontational figure.

Sistani told the country's feuding politicians to live up to their "historic responsibility" by cooperating with Abadi as he tries to form a new government and overcome divisions among different communities that deepened under Maliki. Abadi himself, in comments online, urged his countrymen to unite and cautioned that the road ahead would be tough.

Sistani, a reclusive octogenarian whose authority few Iraqi politicians would dare openly challenge, also had pointed comments for the military, which offered serious no resistance when the Islamic State staged its lightning offensive in June. "We stress the necessity that the Iraqi flag is the banner they hoist over their troops and units, and avoid using any pictures or other symbols," Sistani said, in a call for the armed forces to set aside sectarian differences. Maliki was blamed for blurring lines between the army and militias.

Maliki ended eight years in power that began under US  occupation and endorsed Abadi, a member of his Islamic Dawa party, in a televised late-night speech during which he stood next to his successor, surrounded by other leaders.

The appointment of Abadi, had drawn widespread support within Iraq but also from the United States and regional power Iran - two countries which have been at odds for decades.

"The regional and international welcome is a rare positive opportunity... to solve all (Iraq's) problems, especially political and security ones," Sistani said in comments which were relayed by his spokesman after weekly prayers in Kerbala, south of Baghdad.

After its capture of the northern metropolis of Mosul in June, a swift push by the Islamic State to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Baghdad and last week drew the first US air strikes on Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011.

In Geneva, the United Nations said around 80,000 people had fled to the relative safety of Dohuk province on the Turkish and Syrian borders, part of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced inside the country this year.

Dan McNorton of the UNHCR refugee agency said their plight was severe. "People are exhausted, people are very thirsty, these are searing temperatures," he told a news briefing, adding that children and old people were among those forced to walk for days without food, water or shelter.  Several thousand remained on the barren tops of the Mount Sinjar range, where members of the Yazidi religious minority fled the militants.

However, McNorton said help was still needed. "That situation remains very dramatic for those people, regardless of how many people are on the mountain. It is of critical importance to ensure that they get the assistance and support that they need from the international community," he said.

The Islamic State has also seized large parts of Syria as it tries to build a caliphate across borders drawn by European imperialists a century ago. The leader Hezbollah said the militants could widen their threat to include Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries, as well as region's varied communities.

"This danger does not recognise people. This monster is growing and getting bigger," said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

In London, the British government said it would consider "positively" any request for arms from the Kurds to help them battle the militants who have seized much of Iraq.  The United States has asked European countries to supply arms and ammunition to the Kurdish forces, US and European officials have said.  Prime Minister David Cameron has so far said Britain's response would be limited to a humanitarian effort, but London has also been transporting to Kurdish forces military supplies, such as ammunition, being provided by other nations. "If we were to receive a request then we would consider it positively," a spokeswoman for Cameron said.

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