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Iraq PM committed to forming new govt

A mounting Sunni insurgency is threatening to rupture Iraq 2-1/2 years after US troops withdrew.

FILE: Iraqi army troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they recruit volunteers to join the fight against a major offensive by the jihadist group in northern Iraq. Picture: AFP.

BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Wednesday he is committed to forming a new government on time as he fights growing calls from his opponents, and some of his former allies, to step aside.

A mounting Sunni insurgency is threatening to rupture Iraq 2-1/2 years after the withdrawal of US troops, and Maliki's domestic opponents say he has made matters worse by alienating moderate Sunnis who once fought al-Qaeda but are now teaming up with the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

"We will attend the first session of parliament in harmony with the constitutional merits and out of the commitment to the call of the Supreme Marjaiya (Iraq's Shi'ite clergy) and out of loyalty to our people," Maliki said on state television.

On Friday, the Marjaiya's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani himself called for the government formation process to begin.

Last Wednesday, the results of an April national election were certified, triggering a process that means the first parliament session must be held by 1 July.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that in a meeting with Maliki on Monday the premier had "on multiple occasions affirmed his commitment to 1 July" as the date to start forming a new government.

While US officials have been careful not to say publicly they want Maliki to step aside, Iraqi officials say such a message was intimated behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, militants attacked one of Iraq' largest air bases on Wednesday as the first US teams arrived to assess the Iraqi security forces and decide how to help counter a mounting Sunni insurgency.

Two weeks of advances by militants spearheaded by al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has threatened to rupture the country two and a half years after the withdrawal of US troops.

Kerry urged leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday to stand with Baghdad in the face of the onslaught.

Militants including ISIL and allied Sunni tribes battled Iraqi forces in the town of Yathrib, 90 km north of Baghdad, into the early hours of Wednesday, witnesses and the deputy head of the municipality said. Four militants were killed, they said.

Insurgents have surrounded a massive air base nearby, which was known as "Camp Anaconda" under US occupation, and struck it with mortars. Eyewitnesses said the air base had been surrounded on three sides.

More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in less than three weeks, the United Nations has said, calling the figure "very much a minimum".

The figure includes unarmed government troops machine gunned in mass graves by insurgents, as well as several reported incidents of prisoners killed in their cells by retreating government forces.

US President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq but held off granting a request by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government for air strikes.