, BAGHDAD, June 26- Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr vowed to “shake the ground” under the feet of advancing Sunni militants, risking ratcheting up sectarian tensions Thursday in a crisis dividing Iraq along communal lines.
Sadr, whose movement battled US forces in Iraq, also voiced opposition to American military advisers meeting with Iraqi commanders combatting an offensive that has overrun swathes of five provinces, killed more than 1,100 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and threatens to tear the country apart — ideologically and geographically.
Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki has meanwhile warned rivals against exploiting the crisis to sideline him after Washington urged Iraq’s fractious political leaders to unite in the face of an onslaught led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Sadr’s remarks came as security forces continued to repel assaults on critical towns and infrastructure, though ISIL’s offensive was bolstered when fighters from Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise made a local alliance with it.
“We will shake the ground under the feet of ignorance and extremism,” Sadr said in a televised speech from the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
He said foreign powers “and especially forces of the occupier and regional states should take their hands off” the country, referring to the US and Iraq’s neighbours.
In an apparent effort to restrain worsening sectarian tensions, however, Sadr insisted that the militants did not represent Iraqi Sunnis, whom he said had suffered “marginalisation and exclusion”.
The cleric’s remarks came days after fighters loyal to him paraded with weapons in the Sadr City area of north Baghdad, vowing to fight the militant offensive.
– Iraqi forces regrouping –
The cleric demanded “new faces” in a national unity government following April 30 elections that saw incumbent prime minister Maliki emerge with by far the most seats, albeit short of a majority.
Opponents of Maliki have called for a “salvation” government to be formed that would largely ignore the election results, which they describe as a sham, but the premier has said such a move would be a “coup against the constitution and the political process”.
Washington has pressed for Iraq’s fractious political leaders to unite in the face of the unrest, but they have shown little sign of coming together.
US officials said they believed, however, that Maliki was still committed to opening a process on piecing together a government when parliament convenes next week.
Washington has stopped short of calling for Maliki to go, but has left little doubt it feels he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since American troops withdrew in 2011.
President Barack Obama has so far refrained from carrying out air strikes on the insurgents, but has offered up to 300 American military advisers, who began meeting Iraqi commanders on Wednesday.
Iraq’s flagging security forces were swept aside by the initial jihadist push, but have since begun regrouping.
On Wednesday, loyalists fought off insurgent attacks on a major air base and a key western town, after earlier repelling assaults on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery.
– Militant violence –
Government troops maintained control of the Balad air base, while another offensive was repelled in Haditha in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
But the country was nevertheless hit by militant violence, with bombings and shelling south of Baghdad and in the disputed, ethnically-mixed northern oil hub of Kirkuk killing a total of 20 people.
Maliki’s security spokesman has meanwhile said hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began.
The rare admission of the extent of the casualties comes as the government wages a parallel propaganda battle against the militants, though the authorities came in for criticism from a press freedom watchdog for cracking down on the media.
Paris based Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the Iraqi government’s control over the local media” as well as the reported closure of a number of satellite television channels.
Insurgents were bolstered by fighters when the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, made a local pledge of loyalty to ISIL on a town along the Syria Iraq border, giving it control over both sides of the frontier.
ISIL aims to create an Islamic state straddling Iraq and Syria and has commandeered an enormous quantity of cash and resources during the advance.
The New York Times reported meanwhile that predominantly Shiite Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq and sending military equipment there to help Baghdad in its fight against the Sunni insurgents.
The United Nations says at least 1,075 people were killed in Iraq between June 5 and 22, and has tripled its appeal for aid funding to more than $312 million (229 million euros).
The UN food agency has warned that the country faces “serious food security concerns”.