BAGHDAD -- Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply rejected calls for a caretaker government that would remove him from office, striking a defiant tone Wednesday in the face of U.S. pressure to share more political power and an offensive by Sunni Muslim insurgents that threatens his grip on the country.
With the Iraqi parliament due to meet next week to begin the weeks-long process of forming a new government, al-Maliki gave no indication in a televised address he would step aside or make the substantial reforms U.S. President Barack Obama last week said were necessary to prevent Iraq from sliding back into sectarian war.
Al-Maliki's stance came as militants attacked one of the country's largest airbases and a suicide bomber struck south of Baghdad, increasing the pressure on the Iraqi leadership to find common ground in confronting an unflagging insurgency led by an al-Qaida splinter group.
As recently as last week, U.S. officials believed the threat insurgents would reach Baghdad was receding. But the militants, including former army officers and Sunnis with ties to the Saddam Hussein government, have consolidated their hold on key towns, seized border crossings and targeted oilfields in what analysts describe as a methodical drive towards the capital.
Seeking to clarify al-Maliki's statement, the prime minister's office later said he remained "open to forming a coalition government" that includes all Iraqi religious and ethnic groups. But in his address he showed little appetite for compromise, criticizing rival parties for undermining his Shiite Muslim-dominated government during the crisis.
"Today, in a difficult situation, we have not heard from our partners even one word of support or help," al-Maliki said. He said proponents of a caretaker administration were "rebels against the constitution" who threatened the country just as much as the Sunni insurgents who have taken over much of northern and western Iraq.
He was referring to Sunni lawmakers, who have called for him to cede power when a new government is formed this summer, and to ethnic Kurds, whose leader this week signalled his people might seek to form an independent state.
Al-Maliki's rivals have called for a "national salvation government" that would discard the results of April's parliamentary elections -- in which his Shiite coalition won a plurality, though still less than a third of the seats -- and form an interim administration to demonstrate solidarity against the Sunni militants. The two-term prime minister is accused of fostering sectarian divisions in the government and security forces, which have largely retreated when confronted by the well-armed militants.
"Maliki's military solution isn't enough to solve all the problems we face," said Qais Shater, a Sunni lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc. "A salvation government is the answer."
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with al-Maliki in Baghdad Monday, said the United States would be watching to see whether he fulfils his pledges to form an inclusive government. Obama has ordered up to 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help security forces fend off the insurgency but said only a political resolution could forestall a return to civil war.
Violence edged closer to Baghdad as insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, reportedly launched attacks on a major airbase at Balad, about 80 kilometres north of Baghdad. The former U.S. military installation houses a variety of Iraqi military hardware, including surveillance planes and pickup trucks equipped with machine-guns. The airbase is also one of three key military installations, including Taji, 19 km north of Baghdad, and the Baghdad international airport, that provide security for the Iraqi capital, which is slowly being squeezed by insurgent advances from the north and west.
-- Los Angeles Times