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Iraq Army Tries to Roll Back Sunni Militants’ Advance

By Nayla Razzouk, Mahmoud Habboush and Zaid Sabah
June 16, 2014 2:25 AM EDT 241 Comments
Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize control of Diyala's district Kubra where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant clashed, on June 16, 2014.
Photographer: Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize control of Diyala's district Kubra where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant clashed, on June 16, 2014.

Iraq’s military pummeled the positions of Sunni Muslim insurgents who have captured large chunks of territory north of Baghdad, trying to turn back battlefield advances that threaten to split apart the country.

The army killed more than 279 “terrorists” with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and destroyed 50 of the group’s vehicles within 24 hours, military spokesman Qassim Ata said in a televised news conference yesterday.

“The security situation is improving” and government forces are conducting pre-emptive operations in Baghdad, which is under their control, he said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-led government is seeking to reassert control over territory held by the breakaway al-Qaeda group, whose advances put in doubt his rule over a unified Iraq. Sectarian strife is pushing OPEC’s second-largest oil producer closer to civil war, three years after the U.S. withdrew its forces from the country.

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Jihadist forums and social-media sites were filled with claims that militants had executed 1,700 people they described as apostates.

The claims, which couldn’t be independently verified, were accompanied by photos of the purported mass shootings carried out by ISIL militants. The photos recalled some of the footage from the civil war in Syria, where about 160,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians.

U.S. Staff

The crisis prompted the U.S. to start reducing the staff at its embassy in Baghdad while bolstering security.

Some staff members will be temporarily relocated to consulates elsewhere in Iraq and to a support unit in Amman, Jordan, according to a State Department statement. The Pentagon is sending “a small number” of military personnel “to help ensure the safety of our facilities” in Baghdad, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement.

President Barack Obama’s administration has left open the possibility that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will confer with Iran’s Shiite government on the crisis in neighboring Iraq.

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Kerry spoke about the threat posed by the Sunni militants in phone calls yesterday with the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, according to a State Department official who commented on the diplomatic communications on condition of anonymity. Kerry also will reach out to other counterparts in the region, according to the official.

Iran Aid

The prospect for U.S.-Iranian cooperation on Iraq was thrown in doubt by Marzieh Afkham, a spokeswoman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is strongly against the U.S. military intervention in Iraq,” she told reporters yesterday, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said June 14 that while his country was willing to help Maliki, the Iraqi government hadn’t made an official request for aid.

The crisis could turn part of Iraq into a terrorist state, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told parliament in Canberra today. The escalating violence rattled regional stock markets yesterday. The DFM General Index (DFMGI) plunged 4.7 percent to 4,609.28, the lowest close since April 6.

Kurdish Forces

Army helicopters were attacking Tikrit every four hours trying to dislodge Sunni militants from the hometown of the late Saddam Hussein, said Dawoud Salman, a resident of the city 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, who runs a dairy distributing company. Militants control the road north to Kirkuk and their black banners are flying over buildings, he said.

Iraqi Kurdish forces control the entrance to Kirkuk, Salman said. He tried to reach the city over the weekend and was turned back by Kurdish fighters, he said.

Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, said by phone that Sunni militants stormed and captured most of the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after a fierce fight.

Tal Afar was the scene of a U.S. victory in September 2005, when about 3,500 U.S. troops and 5,000 Iraqi soldiers cleared the city of insurgents after days of heavy fighting.

Sectarian Divide

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent rise to power by the Shiite-Muslim majority, alienated Sunnis, who had dominated the country during Saddam’s era.

Sunnis, a majority in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and in areas north of the capital, have felt marginalized from the country’s political process under Maliki. Shiites, who have political and religious ties to Iran, are the majority in the south.

Fighting hasn’t spread to the south, which has 60 percent of the country’s crude reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Iraq produced 3.3 million barrels a day in May, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The U.S. has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf as Obama weighs options to help Maliki. Republicans have criticized the president for not taking military action.

“Get into the game, Mr. President,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “Get involved with air power, stop the march toward Baghdad.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Nayla Razzouk in Dubai at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net; Mahmoud Habboush in Abu Dhabi at mhabboush@bloomberg.net; Zaid Sabah in Washington at zalhamid@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net Amy Teibel

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