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Iraqi forces ready push Friday after Obama offers advisers

“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq.” President Barack Obama

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.

Iraq’s senior Shi’ite religious cleric issued a call for unity, saying Shi’ites and Sunnis should rally behind the authorities to prevent the Sunni militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from destroying the country.

Already, ISIL has started to enact its puritanical vision of Islam in Mosul, which it captured 10 days ago as it swept across northern Iraq. Mosul residents said ISIL members had destroyed symbols of Iraq’s rich heritage, razing statues of cultural icons and the tomb of a Medieval philosopher.

President Barack Obama offered on Thursday up to 300 American special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory across northern and western Iraq that ISIL and other Sunni armed groups have seized.

But he held off granting a request for air strikes to protect the government and renewed a call for Iraq’s long-serving Shi’ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.

In office since 2006, Maliki has disappointed Washington by alienating Sunnis. Obama has called for a more inclusive government in Baghdad, although he has stopped short of saying Maliki should be replaced. There has been speculation Maliki may also have lost the confidence of allies in Iran.

Tehran and Washington have both spoken of cooperating with each other after decades of mutual hostility to prevent anti-Western, anti-Shi’ite zealots controlling swathes of Iraq.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 60 miles north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the ISIL, 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 U.S.-trained army crumbled.

Gov. 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.

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 defense 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.”

Fighting continues in pockets. Government forces appeared to be still holding out in the sprawling Baiji oil refinery, the country’s largest, north of Samarra, residents said.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, pleaded for stability and for Iraqis to stop their country from falling into the abyss.

Many Iraqis fear the political class will postpone the government formation as long as possible to take advantage of the current chaos. Sistani re-emphasised a call made a week ago for civilians to volunteer and fight ISIL through the Iraqi security forces.

Obama has ruled out sending ground troops back to Iraq, two and half years after he withdrew them.

Announcing the dispatch of advisers, the president said he was prepared to take “targeted” military action later if deemed necessary.

“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,” Obama told reporters.

“Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”

The contingent of up to 300 military advisers will be made up of special forces and will staff joint operations centers for intelligence sharing and planning, U.S. officials said.

Leading U.S. lawmakers have called for Maliki to step down, and Obama aides have also made clear their frustration with him.

While Obama did not join calls for Maliki to go, saying “it’s not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders”, he avoided any expression of confidence in the embattled Iraqi prime minister.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council Friday air strikes “might have little lasting effect or even be counter-productive if there is no movement towards inclusive government.”+