Iraqi government forces moved to regain territory lost to militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the north of the country on Thursday as the United States held talks with its Arab allies to discuss the growing threat of extremist militants in the region.
The developments on the ground in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing a growing insurgency, coincided with steps by Iraq's vice president to convene Parliament, in a move considered a first step toward the formation of a new government.
In the rebel held-city of Tikrit in the north, Iraqi forces launched an airborne assault with commandos flown into a stadium in helicopters, at least one of which crashed after taking fire from insurgents who have seized northern cities, Reuters news agency said.
Eyewitnesses told the agency that battles were raging in the city, hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, which fell to Sunni Islamist fighters two weeks ago on the third day of a lightning offensive that has given them control of most majority Sunni regions.
The helicopters were shot at as they flew low over the city and landed in a stadium at the city's university, a security source at the scene said.
Reuters said government spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment and by evening the assault was still not being reported on state media.
In the French capital, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with top Sunni state allies in the Middle East to consider how to confront the region's growing turmoil.
"The move of [ISIS] concerns every single country here," Kerry said at the start of the meeting held at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.
He said the talks with foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also would touch on a "number of critical issues” including negotiations about Iran's nuclear program and the stalled peace effort between Israel and Palestinian authorities.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called the discussions “of immense importance for our countries.”
“I think with the cooperation between these countries we can affect, hopefully, the situation in a better way,” the Saudi official said.
The United Kingdom through its foreign secretary also warned of the growing danger of ISIS during a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital.
William Hague urged opposing parties in Iraq to unite against what he called a “mortal threat” from ISIS militants. Kerry made a similar unannounced visit to Iraq’s capital earlier this week to send out a similar message for leaders to unite against the militants.
Iraq's vice president called on parliament to convene next week, taking the first step toward forming a new government to present a united front against the Sunni insurgency as a bombing killed 12 people in a Baghdad Shiite neighborhood and police found eight more bullet-riddled bodies south of the capital.
Maliki's Shiite-led political bloc won the most seats in April 30 elections - with 92 seats out of the 328 - but he needs support from other parties for a majority that would give him the right to govern.
An increasing number of critics, both in Iraq and abroad, now want him to step down, saying his failure to promote national reconciliation fueled the insurgency by needlessly angering minority Sunnis.
Compounding the pressure on Maliki, Iraq's powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called late Wednesday for a national unity government of "new faces" representing all groups.
Al-Sadr, whose followers fought fiercely against both U.S. forces and Sunni extremists during the height of the war nearly a decade ago, also vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the Al-Qaeda breakaway group that has threatened to advance toward Baghdad and holy Shiite cities in the south.
Maliki has faced pressure, including from his onetime Shiite allies, to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found. He has insisted the constitutional process must be allowed to proceed.
In a statement, Vice President Khudeir al-Khuzaie ordered the new parliament to hold its first session on Tuesday, to be chaired by the eldest member.
Constitutionally the next step would be to elect a speaker and two deputies, then within 30 days to choose a new president who then has 15 days to ask the largest bloc to choose a prime minister and form the new government.
The prime minister-designate has 30 days to present his cabinet to the parliament.
The discovery in recent weeks of bullet-riddled bodies dumped on the streets also has raised the specter of the past sectarian warfare Iraqis had hoped was behind them.
On Thursday, authorities found eight men believed to be in their 30s and 40s who had been shot to death in Mahmoudiya, about 30 kilometers south of Bagdad, police and hospital officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The men had no ID cards with them, reminiscent of the past when Shiite and Sunni extremists would take the identification to dehumanize those killed or to use as trophies.
Shortly before sunset, a bomb exploded near a clothing shop in Baghdad's northern Shiite neighborhood of Khazimiyah, killing 12 people and wounding 32, said police and hospital officials.
(With Reuters, AP)SHOW MORE