BAGHDAD - Iraq's top Shiite cleric ratcheted up the pressure Friday on lawmakers to agree on a prime minister before the newly elected parliament meets next week, trying to avert months of wrangling in the face of a Sunni insurgent blitz over huge tracts in the country's north and west.
The United States, meanwhile, started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect American civilians and newly deployed U.S. military forces in the capital.
Less than three years after the last American troops left Iraq, Washington has found itself being pulled back in by the stunning offensive spearheaded by the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The onslaught has triggered the worst crisis in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal and sapped public - and international - confidence in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Many of al-Maliki's former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him. But al-Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, has proven to be a savvy and hard-nosed politician, and so far he has shown no willingness to step aside.
Al-Maliki can claim to have a mandate. He personally won the most votes in April elections, and his State of Law bloc won the most seats by far. But he failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone, leaving him in need of allies to retain his post.
That has set the stage for what could be months of arduous coalition negotiations. After 2010 elections, it took Iraqi politicians nine months to agree on a new prime minister. Now, unlike four years ago, the territorial cohesion of Iraq is at stake.
Seizing on the sense of urgency, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the country's politicians to agree on the next prime minister, parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets on Tuesday, a cleric who represents him told worshippers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.
Doing so would be a "prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present," said the cleric, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie.
The reclusive al-Sistani, the most revered figure among Iraqi Shiites, rarely appears or speaks in public, instead delivering messages through other clerics or, less frequently, issuing edicts.
In Washington, the Obama administration backed al-Sistani's call for Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government "without delay."
"It's my understanding he was calling for a process that's in line with the constitution, just to do it very quickly," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. "Which we certainly agree with because we think the situation is so serious that they need to move with urgency."
Still, the probability that Iraq's deeply divided political class can mend its differences in the span of days is unlikely.
The United States and other world powers have pressed al-Maliki to reach out to the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities and have called for a more inclusive government that can address longstanding grievances. Al-Maliki has widely been accused of monopolizing power and alienating Sunnis, and his failure to promote national reconciliation has been blamed for fueling Sunni anger.
The Islamic State has taken advantage of Sunni discontent to fuel its rise. The group's stunning gains also were made possible in part because Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the onslaught.
The United States has already deployed 180 of 300 troops promised by President Barack Obama to assist and advise Iraqi troops. The U.S. also has started flying armed Predator drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. interests in the Iraqi capital, a Pentagon official said Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report about the killings of scores of police and soldiers by the Sunni militants in the days after it captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, then stormed south to capture Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
The killings were widely reported after the Islamic State posted graphic online photos showing dozens of men dressed in civilian clothes lined up or lying face down as militants pointed rifles at their backs. A final set of photos showed their bloodied bodies.
Human Rights Watch said that analysis of the photos and satellite imagery indicated that the militants killed 160 to 190 men in two locations in Tikrit between June 11 and June 14, and the number of victims might be even higher.
Human Rights Watch said it used satellite imagery and publicly available photos to pinpoint the site of the killings in a field next to the Tigris River and near one of Saddam's former palaces.
Chief Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed the photos' authenticity on June 15, after they surfaced, and told The Associated Press that an examination by military experts showed that about 170 soldiers were shot to death after their capture.
The massacre appeared to be aimed at instilling fear in Iraq's demoralized armed forces, as well as the country's Shiite majority.
There are signs that both sides have committed atrocities, rights groups say.
Amnesty International said Friday that it has evidence that suggests "a pattern of extrajudicial executions" of mainly Sunni detainees by government forces and Shiite militias in Tal Afar, Mosul and Baqouba. It based its conclusions on interviews with survivors and relatives of those killed.
The Baqouba killings, in which Shiite militiamen shot dead nearly four dozen Sunni detainees in a city jail, have been widely reported. Amnesty said its report shows "a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis" in retaliation for the insurgent gains.
On the military front, a senior Iraqi army official told the AP that four helicopters carrying Iraqi commandos landed at a soccer pitch inside a university campus in militant-held Tikrit late Thursday and clashed with Islamic State fighters for several hours.
One of the helicopters developed mechanical problems after takeoff from Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, but landed safely in the provincial military headquarters. The official had no word on casualties and declined to specify the mission's objectives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The official also said 200 troops have arrived at a key oil refinery north of Baghdad under attack by militants for more than a week. The reinforcements join a 100-strong contingent that has been defending the Beiji refinery, Iraq's largest and the source of about a quarter of the country's oil needs, including fuel for power stations.
The news from Tikrit and Beiji suggested that Iraq's military was stepping up efforts to regain its footing against the insurgents, who appear to be trying to carve out a self-styled Islamic state straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.
On Friday, al-Maliki warned army commanders in televised comments that militants were likely to try to undermine security in the Iraqi capital ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary session.
He also sounded upbeat about the military situation, saying the armed forces have regained the initiative and are now on the offensive, citing Thursday's Tikrit raid as an example.
Two Iraqi security officials, meanwhile, said several second-hand Sukhoi fighter jets the government purchased from Russia will arrive in two days at an air base in southern Iraq. Iraq's air force, which has been decimated over the past two decades, had Sukhoi jets in its fleet before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.