BAGHDAD (AP) - 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 said 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.
An Iraqi volunteer force trains in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, on Tuesday.
Men crowd a truck at the main recruiting center as they volunteer for military service Tuesday in Baghdad after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents.
"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 so far 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 sprawling 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, 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, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite men.
The military's best-trained and equipped forces have been deployed to bolster Baghdad's defenses, aided by U.S. intelligence on the militants' movements, according to the Iraqi officials, who are close to al-Maliki's inner circle and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss such sensitive issues.
The number of troops normally deployed in Baghdad has doubled, they said, but declined to give a figure. Significant numbers are defending the Green Zone, the area on the west bank of the Tigris River that is home to al-Maliki's office, as well as the U.S. Embassy.