Iraqi Shiite men parade their weapons in the shrine city of Karbala, in central Iraq, yesterday after they volunteered to protect the Shiite holy sites in central and south Iraq in case of an attack by Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Photo: AFP
Iraq's premier rejected forming a unity government to confront jihadists whose sweeping offensive in the country was bolstered yesterday when Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise pledged loyalty to them at a border town.
NATO were to hold key discussions yesterday on Iraq, where the UN says nearly 1,100 people have been killed as Sunni militants led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant overran swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad this month.
The onslaught has displaced hundreds of thousands, alarmed world leaders and put Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, under pressure at home and abroad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, pledged loyalty at the Iraq-Syria border to ISIL, a group it has battled for months.
The move clears the way for a joint push to take control of both sides of the frontier between eastern Syria and western Iraq, and removes a threat to ISIL.
"They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
In a televised address, Maliki ruled out forming a national emergency government to confront the crisis.
"The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process," he said.
"It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters," added Maliki, whose bloc won by far the most seats in April 30 elections but fell short of an outright majority.
His remarks came a day after the first of up to 300 US military advisers began their mission to help the Iraqi army, but the Pentagon said the Americans were not taking on a combat role.
Their primary task is to evaluate Iraqi forces and not to turn the tide against the militants, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.
He added that the United States had expanded its surveillance flights over Iraq, with manned and unmanned aircraft, and was conducting 30-35 sorties daily.
Washington has said it has received legal guarantees from Iraq to shield the advisers, but they fall short of the parliament-approved legal immunity it demanded during talks on a post-2011 American military presence in the country.