Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the offensive by Islamist militants his army is fighting could spill over into neighboring states, as the U.S. weighed options on how to counter the insurgents.
“They will flee to you and your countries will also be inflamed with sectarian wars,” Maliki said in a televised speech today, without naming nations he considered at risk. His Shiite Muslim-led government yesterday accused Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest Sunni power, of providing “moral and material support” for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the group that began its assault by sweeping into Mosul last week.
The conflict with Sunni Muslim militants has weakened 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, a key backer of Maliki which said it will fight ISIL should the group move closer to its border.
President Barack 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 has emphasized he favors political steps before any military moves to contain Iraq’s turmoil. U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said late yesterday that Obama hadn’t yet made a decision about military options.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel repeated American assertions that the failure of Maliki’s government to unify the country was to blame for the militants’ advance through towns and cities across northern and central Iraq.
Some Iraqi forces “just threw down their weapons” as Islamic militants seized territory, Hagel said today at a Senate hearing in Washington. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that some of the Iraqi forces quit because they lost faith with the central government in Baghdad. Maliki yesterday fired four top military commanders for the northern region.
ISIL has rallied disaffected Iraqi Sunnis against the Maliki government, amid widening sectarian rifts. The militants, who are also fighting in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, have moved on from Mosul to take a string of cities and towns, some close to Baghdad.
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 armed forces clashed with ISIL insurgents elsewhere in the same province, killing 10 fighters and wounding 30, their spokesman, Jabar Yawar, said by phone.
Iraq’s military also said its forces had regained parts of the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, which ISIL captured on June 16, according to the Associated Press.
In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani said the “Iranian people” would spare no effort to protect Shiite holy sites in the Iraqi cities of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra, amid the Sunni insurgents’ advance, 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.
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.
In its first public comment on the crisis, Saudi Arabia said June 16 the tensions in Iraq were due to “sectarian policies.” It warned against foreign intervention and urged Iraqis to form a national unity government.