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Iraqi prime minister’s focus is to defend Baghdad

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Iraqi men line up for physical examinations at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Political leaders have agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1. Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Iraqi men line up for physical examinations at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Political leaders have agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1. Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Members of an Iraqi volunteer force put on their newly issued boots in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has put on hold plans for a counteroffensive to retake Iraqi cities captured by Sunni insurgents in the north and west of the country, instead deploying elite forces in Baghdad to bolster its defenses, Iraqi officials tell the AP. Shiite militias who have responded to a cleric’s call to arms also are focusing their efforts on protecting the capital and other Shiite shrines, while Kurdish fighters have grabbed a long-coveted oil rich city outside their self-ruled territory in the name of defending it from the al-Qaida breakaway group leading Sunni extremists in their advance. With each sect focused on self-interests, the situation on the ground is increasingly looking like the fractured state the Americans have hoped to avoid. “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” the top Kurdish leader says.(AP Photo/Ahmed al-Husseini)

An Iraqi man is examined by a military doctor at the main army recruiting center as he volunteers for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Political leaders have agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1. Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Volunteers check in at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Political leaders have agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1. Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Iraqi men jupm out of a truck at the main recruiting center as they volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, June 24, 2014, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. Political leaders have agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1. Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

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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 told The Associated Press 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.

“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

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