Islamist fighters extended their advance in Iraq, entering two northeastern towns as government forces failed to halt an offensive that triggered concern over a civil war and prompted the U.S. not to rule out airstrikes.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces left Jalulah and Saaiydiyah after militants called on them to give up their weapons and leave their posts, Al Jazeera reported, citing residents in the towns. The Interior Ministry started to prepare a new plan to defend Baghdad against an attack by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, Al Arabiya reported, citing a ministry spokesman.
In a sign that the Sunni militants are pushing the country toward another round of sectarian conflict, a representative of Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader called on citizens to carry arms and fight terrorism, according to Al-Mada Press. He said in the town of Karbala that those killed in a “holy” war would be considered martyrs, Al-Mada reported.
Iraqi political leaders should “seek an urgent, sustainable and effective” resolution to the crisis and not encourage sectarianism, said Navi Pillay, United Nations high commissioner for human rights. “They should build an inclusive government and work toward national reconciliation, including equal treatment and representation for all communities.”
The Pentagon will announce today increased surveillance over Iraq, U.S. defense officials said.
Maliki’s army is seeking to dislodge ISIL fighters from cities north of Baghdad after they overran army positions in Mosul this week with little resistance and advanced toward the Iraqi capital. The group is besieging a military base in Tikrit, the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Al Arabiya reported.
Sheikh Abdel-Qader al-Nayel, a military spokesman for Iraq’s tribal revolutionary council, said by telephone from the predominantly Sunni city of Ramadi that Iraqi Sunnis are particularly supportive of “our revolution.” He said weapons, including thousands of rifles and machine guns seized when ISIL moved into Anbar six months ago, were moved to Mosul.
He said borders with Syria are being secured to prevent Shiite militias fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad from returning to Iraq.
The main goal of the insurgency is Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to the prime minister’s office, parliament and foreign embassies, “to demolish the current political process and form a national salvation government,” al-Nayel said.
Three years after the U.S. withdrew forces from Iraq, the army of the Shiite-led government has collapsed in many areas when confronted by the radical Sunni forces, threatening the stability of oil production in the north of the country. President Barack Obama said he won’t rule out using airstrikes to help Iraq’s government beat back the advance.
“I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq, or Syria, for that matter,” Obama said yesterday after meeting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The U.K., which took part in the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam, today said its military wouldn’t play a role.
Al-Nayel said his men were expecting the threat from the U.S. and moved their weapons.
“I advise the U.S. administration to avoid any military involvement in Iraq, and not risk its relations with the Iraqi people,” he said. “We are planning to maintain good relations with the United States after liberation and we won’t use the Iraqi oil as a weapon against anyone.”
Iran will provide support to al-Maliki’s government to combat an “extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely,” President Hassan Rouhani said on state television yesterday. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that two battalions of elite Quds Forces from Iran are backing up Iraqi forces. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said he couldn’t confirm the Wall Street Journal report. He also said the U.S. is “not contemplating ground troops.”
The gains made by ISIL, which was split from an al-Qaeda affiliate last year, poses the biggest threat to Maliki’s government since the U.S. withdrawal. Yesterday, the premier was unable to get parliament to decide on a state of emergency, reflecting the weakening position of his government.
The violence is rattling oil future markets. West Texas Intermediate crude headed for the biggest weekly advance since December and Brent gained as escalating violence in Iraq threatened supplies. Futures pared gains after earlier rising 1.1 percent in New York. They rallied 2 percent yesterday, the most in two months.
In a further blow to the central government, Kurdish forces have moved into Kirkuk to protect oil fields and the city, Rakan Saeed, deputy governor of Kirkuk, said by phone yesterday. Part of the pipeline that exports crude oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan from Kirkuk has fallen under the control of ISIL, as has the link to the 310,000 barrel a day Baiji refinery, he said.
When ISIL seized Mosul this week, it forced a halt to repairs to the pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan. There were conflicting reports that Baiji, the site of Iraq’s biggest refinery, was captured. Iraq, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, produced 3.3 million barrels a day last month, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the situation in Iraq is “not out of control” and the government has taken measures to stop the advances of the gunmen. He said government forces have expelled ISIL from Baiji and has begun a counter-offensive against it in Mosul and Kirkuk.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Maliki needs to show himself as a statesman and reconcile Sunnis and Shiites in the country. “He needs to govern differently,” Clinton said on France Inter radio. “The situation is very serious.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent rise to power of the Shiite-Muslim majority alienated their Sunni counterparts, who governed the country during Saddam’s era. Maliki, who came to power in 2006, alienated Sunnis from the country’s political process.
Sunnis are a majority in Anbar Province to the west and in areas to the north of Baghdad. Shiites account for the majority in the south, where 60 percent of the country’s oil wealth resides, and have close religious and political ties to Iran.
ISIL issued a document in which it declares plans to impose Islamic law in Mosul, several Iraqi news outlets, including al-Mada Press, reported today. The document said drugs, alcohol and cigarettes will be banned and women should dress conservatively and leave their homes only when necessary. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the document.
UN High Commissioner Pillay said ISIL fighters, including prisoners they had released from jails in Mosul and provided with arms, have been actively seeking out, and in some cases killing, soldiers, police and civilians who they perceived as being associated with the government.
“There will be particular scrutiny of the conduct of ISIL, given their well-documented record of committing grave international crimes in Syria,” Pillay said in a statement.