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Iraq's parliament called to meet amid worsening crisis - 12 News KBMT and K-JAC. News, Weather and Sports for SE Texas

Iraq's parliament called to meet amid worsening crisis

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By Nic Robertson, Laura Smith-Spark and Mohammed Tawfeeq

ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq (CNN) -- As Sunni extremist militants and the Iraqi military battle for control, the nation's vice president has issued a decree calling for parliament to meet Tuesday to start the process of creating a new government.

Thursday's directive from Vice President Khader al Khuzaei, acting on behalf of the President, came amid calls for political action to tackle sectarian tensions that have fueled the crisis.

In a televised speech, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to stick to the timeline to create a new government while accusing Sunnis of "coordinating" the crisis.

Al-Maliki accused Sunnis of collaborating with the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and slammed the call to have a national salvation government that would remove him from power.

He also appealed to his Shia constituency by saying he is adhering to the wishes of Shiite religious leader Ali Sistani, who called for volunteers to support the Iraqi army and government.

Many have accused al-Malaki of marginalizing Iraq's Sunni and Kurd minorities in favor of his fellow Shiites.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday played down al-Maliki's rejection of a salvation government, saying it wasn't something the United States had talked to him about specifically.

To the contrary, he said, al-Maliki is committed to the electoral process and creation of a new government that the United States has supported.

"And he committed to moving forward with the constitutional processes of government formation, and that is precisely what the United States was encouraging," Kerry said. "He also called on all Iraqis to put aside their differences, to unite in their efforts against terrorism."

After talks in Paris on Thursday with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Kerry said the two agreed that they want to see the formation of a government in Iraq "as rapidly as possible that represents unity for the country."

The pair are also deeply concerned about the challenge of Syria, he said.

Fabius said that ISIS had shown "terrible ferocity and brutality" and that Iraq must unite to combat it.

"It's a necessity not only for Iraq but the whole region. Because it's a menace for Iraq, for the region, for Europe and the United States as well," he said.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, on a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, also urged the swift formation of an inclusive government, saying Iraqi political leaders must put sectarian division aside.

"The Iraqi state is facing an existential threat, with huge ramifications for the future stability and freedom of this country," he said. "The single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity."

Hague said this would be the focus of his discussions with al-Maliki and Kurdish regional leader Masoud Barzani.

Syrian incursion?

The fighting continued Thursday, with Iraqi special forces assaulting militant positions at the University of Tikrit, according to state television reports. The troops killed 40 militants, according to the state TV, which also carried a report of an Iraqi airstrike on a presidential palace complex in Tikrit.

That strike -- among 108 such strikes nationwide in recent days, according to state television -- reportedly killed 70 militants.

The military also claimed "complete control" of the Baiji oil refinery -- the scene of tough fighting between troops and militants in recent days.

Meanwhile, reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns this week is further evidence of the blurring between the two countries' borders as they face an offensive by Islamic extremists.

At least 57 Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 120 others were wounded by what local officials say were Syrian warplanes that struck several border areas of western Anbar province Tuesday.

These border cities are among those under the control of ISIS, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that encompasses portions of Iraq and Syria.

Sabah Karkhout, head of Iraq's Anbar provincial council, told CNN that Tuesday's air attacks struck markets and fuel stations in areas such as Rutba, al-Walid and Al-Qaim.

Karkhout said he was certain the warplanes were Syrian because they bore the image of the Syrian flag. "Also, the planes flew directly from Syrian airspace and went back to Syria," he said.

Syrian state media called the reports of a cross-border incursion "completely baseless." CNN is seeking a response from the Syrian government in Damascus.

Iraq's border region has been targeted by Syria in the past -- as the Syrian conflict escalated in 2012, there was at least one instance where rockets fired from Syria landed in Al-Qaim.

Whether the strikes signify a concerted effort by Syria to intensify its fight against ISIS is yet to be seen. It is also unclear whether the Syrian strikes in Iraq were a unilateral action or were coordinated with the Iraqi government.

Iran is also thought to be involved in the conflict. A U.S. official told CNN that Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq. It's not known from where they are being launched.

Tehran also is thought to be providing small arms and ammunition to Iraq, as well as providing intelligence to al-Maliki's government, the official said.

Is Baghdad ready for an ISIS attack?

In Baghdad, the Iraqi military insists it's ready to beat back ISIS if the fighters reach the capital city. According to U.S. estimates, ISIS may have as many as 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, but it's not clear where those forces all are.

Soldiers deployed in Anbar province, just 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the center of Baghdad, told CNN that the army would not collapse here -- as was seen in Mosul to the north -- and that they were ready to fight to the end.

The soldiers said they had chased ISIS out of the tiny Sunni village where they are now stationed five days earlier, killing 32 militants while losing three of their own forces. Fresh Shia graffiti was sprayed on storefronts in the now deserted village.

A tank commander, a Shia from south of Baghdad, said, "The terrorists will lose the battle with us because they are chicky-chicken."

He denied that the frightened Iraqi army had turned tail and run in the north of the country. "No, no, the army is strong," he said. "Never afraid. I die in this country."

CNN's Nic Robertson reported from Anbar province and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Ali Younes, Chelsea J. Carter, Arwa Damon, Barbara Starr and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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