Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired at least four senior officers after the collapse of the army’s northern command last week, as troops engaged Islamist militants north of Baghdad.
Maliki dismissed the three top generals who were in charge of operations in Nineveh province after an al-Qaeda breakaway group captured Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city. He also fired the commander of the army’s Third Infantry Division after he “fled the battle scene,” according to a decree read on state-sponsored Iraqiya television today.
The battlefield success of the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is threatening to re-ignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, three years after the U.S. withdrew its forces. It also risks snowballing into a wider conflict that could draw in the U.S. and Iran in defense of Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said last night that President Barack Obama hadn’t yet made a decision about military options to bolster Maliki.
Obama, who this week sent a small contingent of troops to defend U.S. diplomatic posts in Iraq, is scheduled to brief congressional leaders today on America’s options. He met with top members of his security team on June 16 to explore available military and diplomatic alternatives, and has emphasized he favors political steps before any military moves to contain Iraq’s turmoil.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said on a trip to Israel that the U.S. has increased “unmanned, unarmed” drone missions in Iraq at the Iraqi government’s request to support counter-terrorism efforts as the crisis intensifies.
In Shiite Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said “Iranian people” would spare no effort to protect Shiite holy sites in the Iraqi cities of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra, state-run Mehr news agency reported.
“People are ready to defend the Imam’s shrines and give a lesson to terrorists,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
In the statement released to Iraqiya television Maliki said his government was in the process of “rebuilding our armed forces to continue our long battle against terrorism.”
Fighting between ISIL guerrillas and the armed forces has erupted across northern and central Iraq since the fall of Mosul, with both sides claiming successes that can’t be independently verified.
Control of a major refinery at Baiji north of Baghdad has swung several times. Police in Salahuddin province today said ISIL gunmen had seized the facility, while military spokesman Qassim Ata said later that elite forces had regained control. Output was halted June 15 at the refinery, which has a capacity of more than 300,000 barrels a day.
Kurdish peshmerga armed forces clashed with ISIL insurgents elsewhere in the same province, killing 10 guerrillas and wounding 30, their spokesman, Jabar Yawar, said by phone. He said two peshmerga were killed and 20 wounded.
Oil markets, rattled by ISIL’s gains last week, have steadied. Brent crude fell from the highest price in nine months amid speculation that violence won’t spread to the main oil-producing areas in the south.
“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.”