Islamist militants in Iraq fought with the army in a town near Baghdad and with Kurds in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, as the U.S. weighed options to stem an offensive that threatens to fracture the country.
Gunmen from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant attacked Kurdish forces in Kirkuk yesterday, leaving two soldiers and a civilian dead and almost 50 people injured, al-Mada news agency said. An earlier attack left five police dead, while ISIL also regained control of the mostly Turkmen village of Bashir south of Kirkuk, al-Mada said.
There was fighting around Baquba, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Baghdad. The Iraqi air force targeted a meeting of ISIL leaders with air strikes that killed 15 militants, al-Mada said, citing a military commander. The previous night, ISIL attacked a prison in Baquba, unleashing violence in which 43 inmates were killed, said Basem al-Samarraie, a spokesman for the eastern Diyala province where the city is located. Security forces repulsed the attack, he said.
The conflict with Sunni Muslim militants has weakened Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s control over the country, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. It threatens to draw in the U.S. and regional powers including Iran, which said it will fight ISIL should the group move closer to its border.
President Barack Obama will send about 275 U.S. military personnel to protect diplomatic posts in Iraq, the White House said on June 16. Obama is set to brief congressional leaders today on options he is considering for Iraq.
Iran already has deployed more than 130 members of its elite Revolutionary Guards in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province, the BBC reported last week. Guards commander Qassem Soleimani has been in Iraq to help organize defenses, according to the Associated Press.
Oil markets, rattled by ISIL’s gains last week, have steadied. Brent crude, which posted its biggest weekly jump in almost a year last week, rose 0.4 percent yesterday. West Texas Intermediate crude for July delivery dropped 0.5 percent to $106.36 a barrel at 5:30 p.m. in New York.
“The militants’ pace of advance has slowed dramatically,” Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg radio. “We’re probably going to see this thing settling down into a long-dragging stalemate along battle lines that aren’t too far from where they are now.”
In Kirkuk, where the dissolution of Maliki’s army in the face of ISIL’s initial advance last week has allowed the Kurds to seize control of the biggest northern oil field, authorities told residents not to flee the area, and said they would be protected by the Kurdish peshmerga armed forces.
Maliki moved to punish the army leaders who failed to defend Mosul, the biggest northern city, which was seized by ISIL a week ago. The premier fired three top military commanders and ordered another to be prosecuted for deserting his post, al-Mada said. Many Iraqi officers and soldiers abandoned their uniforms and fled as the Islamists advanced.
Government troops also are counter-attacking around Mosul, and killed 23 ISIL fighters in an operation to the south of the region, state-sponsored Iraqiya television said.
The army, backed by Turkmen vigilantes, recaptured parts of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, from ISIL militants who had seized the city on June 16, Turkey’s Sabah newspaper reported, citing a tribal leader.
Iraqi forces are “stiffening their resistance,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon.
The U.S. may send small teams of special forces to advise Iraqis on operations, said Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who oversaw Middle East affairs at the Pentagon in Obama’s first term.
Shiite leaders in Iraq have called on supporters to take up arms against ISIL, raising the possibility of a wider sectarian war similar to the one in neighboring Syria, where ISIL rose to prominence fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told Iraqiya TV that the government received requests from 2 million volunteers to fight the insurgents. It has turned down many because there’s no need for such large numbers, he said.
With both Iran and the U.S. backing Maliki against ISIL, the Iraq crisis has raised the possibility of cooperation between the longtime rivals. Officials from both countries briefly discussed Iraq during talks in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program. Secretary of State John Kerry said June 16 the U.S. was “open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran.”
Other neighbors of Iraq are also expressing concern over the violence. In its first public comment on the crisis, Saudi Arabia said June 16 the tensions in Iraq were due to “sectarian policies.”
Maliki has been criticized for sidelining the country’s Sunni minority, and Obama has said any U.S. military action depends on moves toward a more inclusive government.
Iraq’s government said in a statement yesterday that Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest Sunni power, was responsible for “moral and material support” for the militants.