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Iraqi troops ready push

Govt forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists.

Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists. Picture: AFP.

BAGHDAD - Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.

President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shi'ite-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the Sunni minority.

Speculation that Maliki might be forced aside was heightened when the country's senior Shi'ite cleric urged a speedy formation of a new government following the ratification this week of the results of a parliamentary election held in April.

Maliki's Shi'ite bloc won the most seats but, with stalemate among Shi'ite, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish groups, the new assembly has yet to sit. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wrote in a Friday sermon that a constitutional deadline for convening to choose a new prime minister and government should be respected.

In office since 2006, Maliki has irritated Washington by the way he has alienated Sunnis and there has been speculation he has also lost the confidence of allies in Iran as Tehran and the United States look to end decades of mutual hostility to prevent anti-Western, anti-Shi'ite zealots taking over Iraq.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIL and its allies back.

A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw ISIL seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the US-trained army crumbled.

Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: "Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.

"These troops will not stop," he added, saying government forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.

This week, the militants' lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shi'ites fearful of ISIL, which views them as heretics to be wiped out. Samarra has a major Shi'ite shrine.

Maliki had former dictator Saddam Hussein, overthrown by a 2003 US-led invasion, hanged three years later for killings of Shi'ites in nearby Dujail.

The participation of Shi'ite militias and tens of thousands of new Shi'ite army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed ISIL to carve out territory where it aims to found an Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

"The strategy has been for the last few days to have a new defence line to stop the advance of ISIL," a close ally of Maliki told Reuters. "We succeeded in blunting the advance and now are trying to get back areas unnecessarily lost."

Pockets of fighting continue. Government forces appeared to be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the country's largest, 100 km north of Samarra, residents said.

At Duluiya, between Samarra and Baghdad, residents said a helicopter strafed and rocketed a number of houses in the early morning, killing a woman. Police said they had been told by the military that the pilot had been given the wrong coordinates.

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