Two weeks of advances by militants spearheaded by al Qaeda
offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has
threatened to rupture the country two and a half years after the
withdrawal of U.S. troops.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged leaders of Iraq's
autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday to stand with Baghdad in the
face of the onslaught.
Militants including ISIL and allied Sunni tribes battled Iraqi
forces in the town of Yathrib, 90 km north of Baghdad, into the
early hours of Wednesday, witnesses and the deputy head of the
municipality said. Four militants were killed, they said.
Insurgents have surrounded a massive air base nearby, which was
known as "Camp Anaconda" under U.S. occupation, and struck it with
mortars. Eyewitnesses said the air base had been surrounded on three
More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in less
than three weeks, the United Nations has said, calling the figure
"very much a minimum".
The figure includes unarmed government troops machine gunned in mass
graves by insurgents, as well as several reported incidents of
prisoners killed in their cells by retreating government forces.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers
to Iraq but held off granting a request by Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki's government for air strikes.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said late on
Tuesday 130 of the advisers had now been deployed, with the initial
group sent to establish the operations center included intelligence
analysts, logistics experts and special operations forces.
Kirby said about 40 special operations personnel already in the
country and assigned to the U.S. Embassy's Office of Security
Cooperation had been deployed as part of the first two assessment
About 90 additional troops arrived in Iraq to begin helping
establish a Joint Operations Center in Baghdad with Iraqi forces.
Another 50 U.S. military personnel working in the region are
expected to arrive within the next few days to create four
additional assessment teams, Kirby said.
U.S. military personnel also are flying regular manned and unmanned
reconnaissance flights over Iraq - about 30 to 35 per day - to give
better insight about the situation on the ground and help the
assessment teams, he said.
Baghdad is racing against time as the insurgents consolidate their
grip on Sunni provinces.
The Baiji refinery, a strategic industrial complex 200 km (120
miles) north of Baghdad, remained a frontline early on Wednesday.
State TV showed troop reinforcements flying into the compound by
helicopter to fend off the assault.
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Local tribal leaders said they were negotiating with both the
Shi'ite-led government and Sunni fighters to allow the tribes to run
the plant if Iraqi forces withdraw. One government official said
Baghdad wanted the tribes to break with ISIL and other Sunni armed
factions, and help defend the compound.
The plant has been fought over since last Wednesday, with sudden
reversals for both sides and no clear winner so far.
In recent days, Baghdad's grip on the Western frontier with Syria
and Jordan has also been challenged.
One post on the Syrian border has fallen to Sunni militants and
another has been taken over by the Kurds. A third crossing with
Syria and the only crossing with Jordan are contested, with
anti-government fighters and Baghdad both claiming control.
For ISIL, capturing the frontier is a step towards the goal of
erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across
swathes of Iraq and Syria.
An Iraqi military spokesman said on Tuesday the government had
carried out air strikes on a militant gathering in the town of
al-Qaim near the Syrian border, which is under the control of the
coalition of Sunni armed groups, including ISIL.
Washington has placed its hopes in forming a new, more inclusive
government in Baghdad that would undermine the insurgency. Kerry
aims to convince Kurdish leaders to join it.
In Baghdad on Monday Kerry said Maliki assured him the new
parliament, elected two months ago, would sit by a July 1 deadline
to start forming a new government. Maliki is fighting to stay in
power, under criticism for the ISIL-led advance.
(Additional reporting by a reporter in Diyala and David Alexander in
Washington; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; editing by Anna Willard)
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