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Iraq retrenches to save Baghdad, Shi’ite shrines

BAGHDAD — 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.

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

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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.

Two weeks after a series of disastrous battlefield setbacks in the north and west, Maliki is struggling to devise an effective strategy to repel the relentless advances by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, 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 Shi’ites are in danger of falling prey to the Sunni extremists.

These weaknesses were highlighted when the government tried but failed to retake Tal Afar, a mixed Shi’ite-Sunni city of some 200,000 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, Maliki’s focus has been the defense of Baghdad, a majority Shi’ite city of 7 million fraught with growing tension. The city’s Shi’ites 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 Shi’ite militiamen in the city, who they worry could turn against them.

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The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shi’ite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shi’ite men.

The military’s best-trained and equipped forces have been deployed to bolster Baghdad’s defenses, aided by US intelligence on the militants’ movements, according to the Iraqi officials, who are close to 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, declining to give a figure. Significant numbers are defending the Green Zone, the sprawling area on the west bank of the Tigris River that is home to Maliki’s office, as well as the US Embassy.

‘‘Al-Maliki is tense. He is up working until 4 a.m. every day. He angrily ordered staff at his office to stop watching TV news channels hostile to his government,’’ one of the officials said.

The struggle has prompted the Obama administration to send hundreds of troops back into Iraq, nearly three years after the US military withdrew.

The Pentagon said Tuesday that nearly half of the roughly 300 US advisers and special operations forces are now on the ground in Baghdad, where they have begun to assess the Iraqi forces and the fight against Sunni militants. Another four teams of special forces will arrive in days, bringing the total to nearly 200.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, also said the United States is conducting up to 35 surveillance missions daily over Iraq to provide intelligence.

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