Iraq's vice president issued a decree Thursday calling for parliament to meet next week to start the process of creating a new government as the Iraqi military battles Sunni extremist militants.
Vice President Khader al Khuzaei, acting on behalf of Iraq's President, made the directive amid calls for political action to tackle sectarian tensions that have fueled violence as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad.
On Thursday evening, seven people were killed and 36 others injured in an explosion in the capital's northern neighborhood of Kadimiyah, Iraqi police told CNN. There were conflicting reports about whether a suicide bomber or car bomb was responsible.
In a televised speech this week, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to stick to a Tuesday deadline to begin creating a new government. But the Iraqi leader also spent time in Wednesday's TV address accusing Sunnis of "coordinating" the crisis.
Al-Maliki accused Sunnis of collaborating with ISIS and blasted a call to have a national salvation government that would remove him from power.
He also appealed to Shiites by saying he is adhering to the wishes of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the religious leader who called for volunteers to support the Iraqi army and government.
Many have accused al-Maliki of marginalizing Iraq's Sunni and Kurd minorities in favor of his fellow Shiites.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday played down al-Maliki's rejection of a salvation government, saying it wasn't something the United States had talked to him about specifically.
To the contrary, he said, al-Maliki is committed to the electoral process and creation of a new government that the United States has supported.
"And he (is) committed to moving forward with the constitutional processes of government formation, and that is precisely what the United States was encouraging," Kerry said. "He also called on all Iraqis to put aside their differences, to unite in their efforts against terrorism."
After talks Thursday in Paris with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Kerry said the two agreed they want to see the formation of an Iraqi government "as rapidly as possible that represents unity for the country."
Kerry said he and the French diplomat are also deeply concerned about the challenge of Syria.
Fabius said that ISIS had shown "terrible ferocity and brutality" and that Iraq must unite to combat it.
"It's a necessity not only for Iraq but the whole region. Because it's a menace for Iraq, for the region, for Europe and the United States as well," he said.
Kerry will meet Friday in Saudi Arabia with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba, a senior State Department official said Thursday.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, on a visit to Baghdad on Thursday, also urged the swift formation of an inclusive government, saying Iraqi political leaders must put sectarian division aside.
"The Iraqi state is facing an existential threat, with huge ramifications for the future stability and freedom of this country," he said. "The single most important factor that will determine whether or not Iraq overcomes this challenge is political unity."
Hague said this would be the focus of his discussions with al-Maliki and Kurdish regional leader Masoud Barzani.
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The sprawling offensive by militants in Iraq has now reached the country's largest oil refinery - but it's unclear who has control over the strategic target.
On Tuesday morning, the state-run Iraqiya news agency said Iraqi security forces still control the Baiji oil refinery.
The report also said Iraqi special forces have killed the militant leader who led the attacks against the refinery and goes by the name of " Abu Qutada."
But hours earlier, militant fighters believed to be from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the refinery, several Iraqi security sources told CNN.
CNN cannot independently confirm either claim.
The Baiji refinery, in the northern Salaheddin province, is a crucial resource because it refines much of the fuel needed for domestic consumption. Long lines have already formed at many gas stations across the country.
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As radical Sunni militants snatch city after city in their march to Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq on Monday during the country's tensest time since the U.S. withdrawal of troops.
He'll meet with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the man some say needs to step down.
With al-Maliki's Shiite-led government losing more ground to militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Kerry has implored the leader to rise above "sectarian motivations" to become more inclusive and more representative of its population.
Kerry will also meet with Iraq's foreign minister as well as both Shiite and Sunni leaders.
His trip will "emphasize our highest-level commitment to Iraq during this time of crisis," a State Department official said.
Kerry will also speak with key leaders about forming a new government "in line with the constitutional timeline that they're on."
But outside the rooms of high-level talks, parts of Iraq are falling by the day.
See the latest on the crisis that is spilling far beyond Iraq's borders from CNN.com.
How big of a threat is ISIS really?
The White House wants to find out and is deploying as many as 300 military advisers to Iraq to assess the might of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The jihad group's rash battlefield successes make them look extremely fierce.
They have surged over from northern Syria to blitz major cities in Iraq's Sunni region, taking Tal Afar and Mosul then moving quickly south. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled from their path, creating a new refugee crisis.
They have advanced on Baquba, just north of Baghdad and are threatening to attack the capital.
The Obama administration has said there will be no more American boots on the ground after the drawdown of all American troops - tens of thousands of them.
It's up to the advisors to help Iraqi security forces vanquish ISIS on their own.
Washington has said little about what they'll actually be doing - and expert opinions on that and on whether they should be in Iraq at all are split.
Who are they?
They are high-ranking officers. They are Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, said retired Marine Sgt. Adam Banotai.
Banotai, who scrapped through the brutal battle for Fallujah during the Iraq war, thinks the term 'adviser' is misplaced.
"It is political semantics," he said. "We are calling them adviser now...instead of combat troops or boots on the ground." said retired Sgt. Adam Banotai.
"They are the most elite fighters we have," he added. "So, if they aren't going to be combat troops - I'm not quite sure who the president is going to refer to as combat troops."
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There's a growing chorus - both in Washington and in the Arab world - that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has to go if there's any hope of unifying Iraq as Islamic militants advance south toward Baghdad.
While some on Capitol Hill aren't shy about saying his days as the Iraqi leader should come to an end, at the White House it's more of a whisper.
Senior U.S. officials tell CNN that the Obama administration is of the belief that Maliki is not the leader Iraq needs to unify the country and end sectarian tensions.
The officials, along with Arab diplomats, say the White House is now focused on a political transition that would move the Iraqis toward a more inclusive government - one without Maliki, but which includes Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.
Whatever the action, something needs to happen fast.
The lightning-fast advance by Sunni fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has toppled large portions of northern Iraq and brought the militant push to within 40 miles of Baghdad. ISIS wants to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, that would stretch from Iraq into northern Syria.
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One by one, Iraqi cities seem to be falling to a militant group bent on continuing its march forward.
What's happening in Iraq now has all the makings of a civil war - and a full-blown foreign policy crisis. The United States is mulling direct talks with Iran while it boosts security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with military personnel.
Why Iran? In recent days, Iran has sent hundreds of troops to fight alongside Iraqi government security forces in Diyala province, a senior security official in Baghdad told CNN.
Clearly, the crisis in Iraq is spilling far beyond its borders. Here's the latest:
Iraq's military strikes back at ISIS
After days of violent advances by the militant group ISIS, the Iraqi air force killed more than 200 militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi state TV reported Monday.
The air raids against ISIS took place in Saqlawiya, northwest of Falluja, according to state TV.
ISIS has been fighting to take control of Iraq, seizing cities across the country.
Iran enters the mix
In recent days, Iran has sent about 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops to fight alongside Iraqi government security forces in Iraq's Diyala province, according to a senior security official in Baghdad who spoke to CNN on Friday.
But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denied reports that some of Iran's elite forces are in Iraq to help bolster Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite.
"If the Iraqi government wants us to help, we will consider it," Rouhani said, according to an English translation of his remarks Saturday on state-run Press TV.
But "so far they have not asked specifically for help." Rouhani added that Iran could give strategic guidance if requested.
The Obama administration is exploring possible direct talks with Iran over the deteriorating situation in Iraq, two senior U.S. officials told CNN.
Both officials ruled out any type of teaming up with Iran because the United States and Iran don't have a lot of common interests - other than a stable Iraq.
The United States is wary of furthering Iran's already considerable influence in Iraq. The Shiite Iranian regime is al-Malaki's closest ally in the region. And the Obama administration is concerned appearing to team up with Iran would both alienate Iraq's Sunni majority and worry Sunni allies of the United States in the region.
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An audio recording purportedly from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria promises more fighting in more Iraqi cities, including Baghdad.
"Continue your march as the battle is not yet raging," a voice said to be that of ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani says on the message posted early Thursday (last Wednesday night ET) on the group's media website.
"It will rage in Baghdad and Karbala. So be ready for it."
CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the audio or time and date of its recording, which is nearly 17 minutes long.
"Don't give up a hand's width of ground you've liberated," the voice says in apparent encouragement of ISIS fighters.
The message, if authentic, is further proof that the militant group are not content with control of the places they have already taken over - and are setting their sights higher.
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