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US drones circle Baghdad as Maliki's forces battle for Tikrit

American drones are circling Baghdad for "protection reasons", as Maliki launches fresh offensive against militants in Tikrit
Iraqi government forces are to launch a fightback against militants in the strategic town of Tikrit (AFP)

The US military has started flying armed drones over Baghdad to defend American troops and diplomats as Iraqi forces took their fight against Sunni insurgents to the strategic militant-held city of Tikrit.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged the country's leaders to unite, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded political measures are needed to defeat the offensive that has killed more than 1,000 people and overrun major parts of five provinces.

“What is requested from political blocs is to agree on the three presidencies during the days allotted…in accordance with the constitutional timeline,” Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s spokesperson Abdul Mahdi Karbalai said during a Friday prayer sermon. “That is the beginning of the political solution that everyone is looking for,” he added.

Karbalai was referring to the roles of the president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament in his comments. Parliament is due to convene on 1 July, although there appears to have been little progress made in agreeing candidates to fill the three key posts.

In further fallout, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region said there was no going back on his ethnic group's self-rule in disputed territory, including the divided northern oil city Kirkuk, now defended against the militants by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

“Now, this [issue]… is achieved.” President Massoud Barzani told reporters on Friday, referring to a constitutional article providing for the city of Kirkuk to be incorporated into Kurdish territory. “We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these [disputed] areas.”

“There were Iraqi forces in these areas, and then there was a security vacuum, and [Kurdish] Peshmerga forces went to fill this vacuum,” he added at the press conference held jointly with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

International agencies also raised alarm bells over the humanitarian consequences of the fighting, with up to 10,000 people having fled a northern Christian town in recent days and 1.2 million displaced by unrest in Iraq this year.

A senior US official said "a few" armed drones were being used over Baghdad as a precaution to safeguard Americans in the Iraqi capital if necessary.

But officials said the drones would not be used for offensive strikes against the Sunni Arab militant offensive, led by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but involving other groups as well.

The Pentagon acknowledged that among the manned and unmanned aircraft flying over Iraq to carry out surveillance, some were carrying bombs and missiles - without specifying if those planes were drones.

"The reason that some of those aircraft are armed is primarily for force protection reasons now that we have introduced into the country some military advisers whose objective will be to operate outside the confines of the embassy," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said.

Maliki insisted that "Baghdad is safe."

A retired US general, James Conway, echoed those remarks, saying that "the worst is over" as militants will be unable to take Baghdad, the south or Kurdish areas.

In Tikrit, Iraqi forces have swooped into Tikrit University by helicopter, and a police major reported periodic clashes there on Friday.

A senior army officer said Iraqi forces were targeting militants in Tikrit with air strikes to protect forces at the university and prepare for an assault on the hometown of executed former leader Saddam Hussein.

Another senior officer said taking the university was an important step towards regaining control of Tikrit, which the militants seized on 11 June.

The operation is the latest effort to regain the initiative after security forces swiftly withdrew in the face of the initial insurgent onslaught launched on 9 June.

Arming moderate rebels

Sistani's remarks echoed those of British Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Jeddah as Washington unveiled a $500 million plan to arm and train moderate Syrian Sunni rebels to help fight the ISIL-led militants.

On Thursday, Maliki, who has publicly focused on a military response to the crisis, said political measures were also necessary, ahead of the July 1 opening of the new parliament elected on April 30.

Iraq has also appealed for US air strikes against the militants, but Washington has only offered up to 300 military advisers.

American leaders have stopped short of saying Maliki must go, but have left little doubt they feel he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since US troops withdrew in 2011.

Mortar fire south of Baghdad on Friday killed at least five people, while shelling and clashes in Diyala province to the northeast killed 10 more, four of them soldiers.

Maliki's security spokesman has said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began, while the UN puts the overall death toll at nearly 1,100.

The International Organisation for Migration warned that aid workers could not reach tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by the violence, and called for humanitarian corridors to be established.

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