The stunning onslaught by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant threatens to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out
sectarian warfare across a crescent of the Middle East, with no
regard for national borders that the fighters reject.
Joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up the
government of their mutual ally Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime
minister, would be a major breakthrough after hostility dating to
Iran's 1979 revolution, and demonstrates the degree of alarm raised
by the lightning insurgent advance.
The ISIL fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal
Afar in northwestern Iraq overnight after heavy fighting on Sunday,
solidifying their grip on the north.
"The city was overrun by militants. Severe fighting took place, and
many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and
Sunni families have fled to the east," said a city official who
asked not to be identified.
Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city,
which ISIL seized last week at the start of a drive that has plunged
the country into the worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew in
ISIL, seeking a Sunni caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is also fighting
Syria's Iranian-backed government. It has support among some in
Iraq's Sunni minority who see the Shi'ite Maliki as both a pawn of
Iran and of the United States, whose forces ended decades of Sunni
dominance by toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on
Sunday that Washington was considering making contact with Iran to
find ways to aid the Baghdad government. Publicly, the White House
said no such contacts had yet taken place.
The U.S. overture came a day after Iran's President Hassan Rouhani,
a relative moderate elected last year, said Tehran would consider
working with the United States in Iraq if it saw that Washington was
willing to confront "terrorist groups".
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending troops back into
Iraq although he says he is weighing other military options, such as
air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf.
The only U.S. military contingent on the ground are the security
staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington said on Sunday it was
evacuating some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines
and other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.
The sprawling fortified compound on the banks of the Tigris is the
largest and most expensive diplomatic mission ever built, a vestige
of the days when 170,000 U.S. troops fought to put down a civil war
and mass sectarian cleansing that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion
that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis now face the prospect of a replay of that extreme violence,
but this time without American forces to intervene.
The prospect of cooperation between the United States and Iran shows
how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of the Middle
East in a matter of days.
Rouhani has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including
secret talks with Washington that led to a breakthrough preliminary
deal last year to ease sanctions in return for curbs on Iran's
nuclear program. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would
Iraq is the only country closely allied to both the United States
and Iran, but tentative past efforts by Tehran and Washington to
cooperate there were fruitless. Tehran has longstanding ties to
Maliki and the Shi'ite political parties that U.S.-backed elections
brought to power after Saddam's fall.
Iran blames the United States and its Gulf Arab allies for stoking
Sunni militancy in the region by backing the uprising against its
ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where ISIL emerged as one of a
dominant Sunni rebel group in a three year civil war.
Asked if Iran would now work with the United States against ISIL,
Rouhani told a news conference on Saturday: "We can think about it,
if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or
"Where did ISIL come from? Who is funding this terrorist group? We
had warned everyone, including the West, about the danger of backing
such a terrorist and reckless group," he said.
ISIL fighters began their assault last week by capturing Mosul. They
swept through other Sunni cities in the Tigris valley north of
Baghdad, including Saddam's hometown Tikrit.
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Tal Afar, the city captured on Sunday, had been defended by an unit
of Iraq's security forces commanded by a Shi'ite major general, Abu
Walid, whose men were among the few army holdouts in the province
around Mosul not to flee the rapid ISIL advance.
Most of the inhabitants of Tal Afar are members of the Turkmen
ethnic group. Turkey has expressed concern.
ISIL fighters appear to have halted their advance in towns along the
Tigris an hour's drive north of the capital. They also hold most of
the Euphrates valley to the west, which they captured at the start
of the year, bringing them to the gates of the city of 7 million
Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq and are based
mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, with
thousands of volunteers turning out to join the security forces
after a mobilization call by the top Shi'ite cleric.
Baghdad itself is divided between Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods
and suffered intense street fighting in 2006-2007. Peace never quite
returned and districts are still surrounded by barbed wire and
concrete blast walls.
ISIL fighters aim to establish a state on both sides of the
Syria-Iraqi frontier based on strict medieval Sunni Muslim precepts.
The group, which fought against the U.S. occupation as al Qaeda's
Iraq branch, broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in
Syria and now says the jihadist movement founded by Osama bin Laden
is no longer radical enough.
Their advance in Iraq has been assisted by other Sunni Muslim armed
groups, alienated by what many Sunnis believe is repression from
Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
The government's collapse in the north has also allowed forces of
the Kurdish autonomous region to advance, seizing the city of Kirkuk
and rural areas with vast oil reserves.
Residents in Tal Afar said Shi'ite police and troops rocketed Sunni
neighborhoods before the ISIL forces moved in and finally captured
the city. A member of Maliki's security committee told Reuters that
government forces had attacked ISIL positions on the outskirts of
the city with helicopters.
"The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting
and most families are trapped inside houses. They canít leave town,"
a local official said on Sunday before the city was overrun. "If the
fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result."
In years of fighting on both sides of the frontier, ISIL has gained
a reputation for shocking brutality. It considers Shi'ites to be
heretics deserving of death and its bombers have been killing
hundreds of Iraqi civilians each month.
A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account
appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of
men, unarmed and lying prone on the ground.
Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds of army
deserters captured as they tried to flee the fighting. They were
shown being transported in the back of trucks, led to an open field,
laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several
pictures, the black ISIL flag can be seen.
Most of the captured men wore civilian clothes, although one picture
showed two men in military camouflage trousers, one of them half
covered by a pair of ordinary trousers.
"This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight the
Sunnis," a caption to one of the pictures reads.
(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles and David Sheppard in Arbil,
Raheem Salman, Ahmed Rasheed and Ned Parker in Baghdad, Alexander
Dziadosz in Beirut and Missy Ryan and Jim Loney in Washington;
Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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