June 24, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Iraq's premier narrows focus to saving Baghdad

Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, right, listens to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the presidential palace in Irbil, Iraq, June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Iraq's Kurdish region in a U.S. diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of militants pushing towards Baghdad. (Brendan Smialowski / AP)

Irbil, Iraq— Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is ready to concede, at least temporarily, the loss of much of Iraq to Sunni insurgents and is instead deploying the military’s best-trained and equipped troops to defend Baghdad, Iraqi officials told the Associated Press Tuesday.

Shiite militias responding to a call to arms by Iraq’s top cleric are also focused on protecting the capital and Shiite shrines, while Kurdish fighters have grabbed a long-coveted oil-rich city outside their self-ruled territory, ostensibly to defend it from the al-Qaida breakaway group.

With Iraq’s bitterly divided sects focused on self-interests, the situation on the ground is increasingly looking like the fractured state the Americans have hoped to avoid.

“We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” the top Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday in Irbil, capital of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Two weeks after a series of disastrous battlefield setbacks in the north and west, al-Maliki is struggling to devise an effective strategy to repel the relentless advances by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a well-trained and mobile force thought to have some 10,000 fighters inside Iraq. The response by government forces has been far short of a counteroffensive, restricted mostly to areas where Shiites are in danger of falling prey to the Sunni extremists or around a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.

These weaknesses were highlighted when the government tried but failed to retake Tal Afar, a mixed Shiite-Sunni city of some 200,000 that sits strategically near the Syrian border. The government claimed it had retaken parts of the city but the area remains under the control of the militants after a battle in which some 30 volunteers and troops were killed.

Government forces backed by helicopter gunships have also fought for a week to defend Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Beiji, north of Baghdad, where a top military official said Tuesday that Sunni militants were regrouping for another push to capture the facility.

In the face of militant advances that have virtually erased Iraq’s western border with Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan, al-Maliki’s focus has been the defense of Baghdad, a majority Shiite city of 7 million fraught with growing tension. The city’s Shiites fear they could be massacred and the revered al-Kazimiyah shrine destroyed if Islamic State fighters capture Baghdad. Sunni residents also fear the extremists, as well as Shiite militiamen in the city, who they worry could turn against them.

The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation’s top Shiite cleric to issue an urgent call to arms.