BAGHDAD - Iraq's vice president called on parliament Thursday to convene next week, taking the first step toward forming a new government to present a united front against a rapidly advancing Sunni insurgency that threatens to spread across the region.
Britain's top diplomat, visiting Iraq, urged its leaders to put aside their differences for the good of the nation. And in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the United States' top Sunni state allies in the Mideast to consider how to confront the growing turmoil.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led political bloc won the most seats in April 30 elections - with 92 seats out of the 328 - but he needs support from other parties for a majority that would give him the right to govern. An increasing number of critics, both in Iraq and abroad, now want him to step down, saying his failure to promote national reconciliation fueled the insurgency by needlessly angering minority Sunnis.
Compounding the pressure on al-Maliki, Iraq's powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a televised statement late Wednesday in which he called for a national unity government of "new faces" representing all groups.
Al-Sadr, whose followers fought fiercely against both U.S. forces and Sunni extremists during the height of the war nearly a decade ago, also vowed to "shake the ground" under the feet of the al Qaeda breakaway group that has threatened to advance toward Baghdad and holy Shiite cities in the south.
Al-Maliki has faced pressure, including from his onetime Shiite allies, to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found. He has insisted the constitutional process must be allowed to proceed.
In a statement, Vice President Khudeir al-Khuzaie ordered the new parliament to hold its first session on Tuesday, to be chaired by the eldest member.
Constitutionally the next step would be to elect a speaker and two deputies, then within 30 days to choose a new president who then has 15 days to ask the largest bloc to choose a prime minister and form the new government. The prime minister-designate has 30 days to present his cabinet to the parliament.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meeting with al-Maliki in Baghdad, told a news conference that "we believe the urgent priority must be to form an inclusive government ... that can command the support of all Iraqis and work to stop terrorists and their terrible crimes."
Hague's trip follows a visit by Kerry, who earlier this week delivered a similar message and warned that Washington is prepared to take military action even if Baghdad delays political reforms.
The intense diplomatic push underscores the growing international concern over the gains by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
In Paris, Kerry said the threat posed by the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, reaches beyond the two countries - Iraq and Syria - where it is currently based.
"The move of ISIL concerns every single country here," Kerry said at the start of the meeting held at the U.S. ambassador's residence. He said his talks with foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also would touch on a "number of critical issues."
It's feared the insurgency will spark an outright civil war in Iraq - joining the ongoing three-year battle in Syria - if ISIL's might is not curbed.
Syrian warplanes have already struck suspected Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targets in the Iraqi border town of Qaim. Al-Maliki said he didn't request the strikes, but welcomed them just the same, reports CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata.
And, according to Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Damascus is happy to provide the service.
"For ISIS to occupy this big part of Iraq is dangerous for the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq," Mekdad told CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer in Damascus recently. "It also makes us feel more endangered and we should mobilize our efforts together with all those that want to fight against terrorism."
The Obama administration was far less enthusiastic about Syria's government joining in the fight across its border.
"We continue to underscore that the solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday. "The solution to Iraq's security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime."
Meanwhile the discovery in recent weeks of bullet-riddled bodies dumped on the streets also has raised the specter of the past sectarian warfare Iraqis had hoped was behind them.
On Thursday, authorities found eight men believed to be in their 30s and 40s who had been shot to death in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Bagdad, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information. The men had no ID cards with them, reminiscent of the past when Shiite and Sunni extremists would take the identification to dehumanize those killed or to use as trophies.
Shortly before sunset, a bomb exploded near a clothing shop in Baghdad's northern Shiite neighborhood of Khazimiyah, killing seven people and wounding 24 others, said police and hospital officials.
In northern Iraq, an insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages on Wednesday sent thousands of people fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave. The shelling of the cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.
While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shiite refugees were still hoping to be let in but were facing delays at a checkpoint because they lacked sponsors on the other side.
One of the refugees, who gave only her nickname of Umm Alaa, fearing retribution, said she and hundreds of others left their village of Quba and a nearby hamlet during the militants' initial assault on June 10 to seek shelter in communities that were then attacked Wednesday.
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Adrian Edwards, last week said the number of people in Iraq forced from their homes is estimated to be 1 million so far this year.