Top cleric tells Iraqi leaders to pick premier by next week

BAGHDAD — Iraq's top Shiite religious leader escalated pressure on politicians to agree on a new government that can prevent a fracturing of the country, as the military pressed its assault on militants who have seized major cities.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in remarks relayed to worshipers at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, said that picking a prime minister, president and speaker when the legislature meets July 1 will lead to the "desired solution" to the crisis.

"The assembly should avoid sectarian and nationalistic wrangling as it would only exacerbate the situation in the country," Sistani said through his representative, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie. "The Iraqi people are able to overcome this crisis. A breakup isn't the solution."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing concerted pressure at home and from world leaders to help forge a unity government that can address the demands of Sunnis marginalized by his Shiite-dominated administration. President Barack Obama, while agreeing to send military advisers to help the Iraqi military fight guerrillas of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has refrained from ordering air strikes, putting the onus on Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government.

Iraqi forces backed by helicopters stepped up their battle against ISIL insurgents in Tikrit, the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein that's 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Baghdad. The city was taken by ISIL soon after it swept into Mosul earlier this month in an offensive that raised concerns of a return to civil war and a possible split of OPEC's No. 2 producer along sectarian and ethnic rifts.

"We're hearing helicopters hovering above and the thud of mortar rounds landing," Khaled al-Samarraei, 45, said Friday by phone, describing bombardments that began around dawn. Stores are shut, electricity and water have been cut, and his family is living off supplies they had stockpiled, he added.

"I couldn't get out of the city because I have a big family and couldn't all of them out and my car had run out of fuel," al-Samarraei said. "We are looking forward to this military operation to end this situation."

As fighting for Tikrit raged, Human Rights Watch reported Friday that Sunni ISIL militants executed as many as 190 men in at least two locations in the city between June 11-14, citing analysis of photographs and satellite imagery.

"The number of victims may well be much higher, but the difficulty of locating bodies and visiting the area has prevented a full investigation," the group said.

On June 12, ISIL claimed to have executed 1,700 Shiite "members of the army" in Tikrit, it said. Two days later, it posted images on a jihadist website purportedly showing groups of executed men.

The guerrilla movement, whose extreme brutality contributed to it splitting from the top al-Qaida leadership earlier this year, has also been battling Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria's civil war.

Iraq's parliament is set to convene next week after April elections in which no political bloc won a majority. The process of forming a government took eight months after the previous vote four years ago.

Maliki has been criticized for sidelining Iraq's Sunni minority, some of whom have supported ISIL in the largely Sunni areas it has overrun. This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have both been in Baghdad urging a united front among Iraqi politicians to help roll back the militant offensive.

Maliki, who has so far refused to stand down amid growing unease among his Shiite allies, has blamed Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, for fomenting unrest.

The surge in violence has also overturned relations between the authorities in Baghdad and the largely autonomous Kurdish region in the north.

As ISIL fighters captured Mosul, Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved to take complete control of the strategically key city of Kirkuk, home to Iraq's fourth biggest oil fields.

Speaking in Irbil Friday alongside Hague, Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani said that the arrival of his fighters in Kirkuk "can't be reversed or changed," signaling an unwillingness to give up control. There was no longer any need for a referendum on the city's status, a long-standing demand of the Kurds, Barzani said.

"The Peshmerga had to interfere to protect the regions the Iraqi army has withdrawn from and won't let them fall or be controlled by the gunmen," he said.

David Lerman in Washington and Alaa Shahine in Dubai contributed to this report.

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