Kurdish forces take control of central Iraqi town; Rouhani says Iran is ready to help Iraq if asked

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on Iraqis of different religious and ethnic sects to unite to defeat the Sunni-led insurgency.

“We all belong to one country and one religion,” the Shia premier said in the central city of Samara.

“Don’t listen to those talking about Sunnis and Shias ... From Samara, we will start the battle to vanquish terrorism,” he said.

Kurdish forces take control of Qarah Taba

Kurdish military forces have taken control of a disputed town in central Iraq, a local politician said on Saturday, in their latest advance as Iraqi government troops are on the back foot in the face of a widening Sunni-led insurgency.

The peshmerga — the official troops of the autonomous region of Kurdistan — entered the town of Qarah Taba overnight after government soldiers abandoned their posts, said Ibrahim Bajlan, an official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Qarah Taba is an ethnically mixed town in the province of Diyala, 120 kilometres north-east of the capital Baghdad. It is one of several areas at the centre of a dispute between Iraq’s Central government and Kurdistan.

“The peshmerga have started implementing a large-scale deployment plan to secure public and private buildings and establish stability in the town,” Mr. Bajlan told independent site Alsumaria News.

Kurdish forces are already in control of several such disputed areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, following lightning advances by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) earlier this week.

“The peshmerga’s entry has reassured Qarah Taba’s residents, who were afraid that the security vacuum could be exploited by ISIL and its allies,” Mr. Bajlan said.

Insurgents from al-Qaeda offshoot ISIL have tightened their grip in Iraq’s northern Sunni heartland and are pressing ahead towards Baghdad.

The radical Sunni group has captured the northern province of Nineveh and large swathes of the province of Salah al-Din further south, raising international fears that Iraq is falling apart.

Iran ready to help: Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says his country is ready to help Iraq if asked, adding it has “no option but to confront terrorism”.

Mr. Rouhani suggested in a press conference on Saturday that the Sunni militants who have seized cities in northern Iraq this week are linked to Iraqi politicians who lost in parliamentary elections held in April.

Iran has built close political and economic ties with postwar Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shias have spent time in the Islamic Republic. Iran this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security on its borders.

Mr. Rouhani said Iran will study any request for aid and was “ready to provide assistance within international law”.

Iran is a close ally of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Shia cleric issues call to take up arms

Iraq has seen increasing violence over the last year, much of it blamed on ISIL and aimed at security forces and Shiite civilians.

The Shia-led government’s response, with security sweeps and mass arrests, has alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority from which ISIL and other rebel groups draw their support.

Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, on Friday launched a fervent call to arms to stop the advances by Sunni militants.

President Barack Obama has said that any military action taken by the U.S. in Iraq must be accompanied by “serious and sincere” efforts by the Iraqi government to set aside sectarian differences.

“The United States will do our part, but understand that it’s up to Iraq as a sovereign nation to solve their problems,” the president said. “We can’t do it for them.” Mr. Obama reiterated that the U.S. would not send ground troops into Iraq.

He has met with his national security team to deliberate other military options.

All U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq in late 2011 after an eight-year occupation following the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.

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