Iraq's parliament will meet next week to begin the process of forming a new government, officials said Thursday, as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki blamed the United States for his army's inability to stop Sunni Muslim insurgents who are threatening his grip on the country.
In an interview with the BBC's Arabic-language service, Maliki said that the Iraqi army would have been able to block the insurgents' advance into northern and western Iraq if the U.S. had moved more quickly to deliver fighter planes that Baghdad had purchased.
Apparently referring to F-16 jets that U.S. officials have said would arrive no earlier than September, Maliki said Iraqi officials had bought 36 of the planes and thought they would have received them by now.
"I'll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract," Maliki told the British broadcaster in his first interview with an international news organization since the insurgents seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, this month.
"We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian, to secure the air cover for our forces," he said. "If we had air cover, we would have averted what had happened."
Iraq's military, trained by the United States, suffers from an almost total lack of air power. It has two Caravan combat turboprop aircraft that are equipped to launch Hellfire missiles, but briefly ran out of the projectiles at the height of the crisis.
Separately, Iraq's vice president, Khader Khuzai, issued a decree saying that the parliament would convene Tuesday.
The announcement came amid growing pressure on Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, to share more political power with minority groups, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds.
Maliki, whom critics accuse of running a Shiite-dominated dictatorship, has said he is open to forming a coalition government including all religious and ethnic groups. But he has not signaled he would be willing to forgo a third term as prime minister.
Maliki's State of Law coalition won a plurality of seats in the April parliamentary elections. But many Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers say he must step aside, saying his leadership has fueled the insurgency.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry met Thursday with foreign ministers from three Sunni-led Arab states — Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and called on them to persuade Iraqi Sunni leaders to back the constitutional process of forming a government.
U.S. officials said they were focused on finding a political solution to the crisis rather than a military one.
Kerry "made clear that we had made no decision to go ahead with military action like that, but reserve the right to do so if and when our interests call for it," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Iraqi forces and insurgents — led by an Al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — continued to battle Thursday on multiple fronts.
Private Iraqi news media reported that the country's forces airlifted commandos to a university in Tikrit, hometown of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, and the helicopters came under heavy fire from insurgents. The city about 100 miles north of Baghdad, the capital, was seized by insurgents two weeks ago in a dramatic offensive that has seen most Sunni-majority areas of northern and western Iraq fall out of government hands.