Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. won’t send troops to Iraq to help the government battle al-Qaeda-linked militants who have seized control of much of the city of Fallujah and nearby towns.
“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said at a news conference in Jerusalem today. “We’re going to do everything that is possible to help them,” while stopping short of putting boots on the ground, he said. The U.S. is in touch with tribal leaders in the region “who are showing great courage” against militants, he said.
There is little appetite in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after President George W. Bush’s administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending direct U.S. military action in Iraq two years ago as one of his main accomplishments. Fallujah, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Baghdad in Anbar province, was one focus of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces against Iraqi insurgents, which paved the way for the American withdrawal.
The al-Qaeda fighters have overrun the police headquarters in Fallujah and seized military equipment there provided by the U.S. Marines, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city in Iraq’s western Anbar province, said in a phone interview late yesterday. There’s no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is occurring on a highway linking the city to Baghdad, he said.
Fighting in Syria
The Sunni Muslim gunmen in Anbar, which neighbors Syria, are affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, whose regional influence is growing through its involvement in the war to topple Syrian President Bashar al- Assad. The U.S. has already stepped up arms supplies to help Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government suppress the group, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have already complicated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s struggle to assert control over the oil-rich country following the U.S. pullout. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in 2013 was the deadliest in five years. Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of parliament resigning last week because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests in Anbar.
The U.S. is following the events in Iraq closely and is concerned by efforts of the “terrorist Al Qaida/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to assert its authority in Syria as well as Iraq,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement yesterday.
“We would note that a number of tribal leaders in Iraq have declared an open revolt against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Harf said. “We are working with the Iraqi government to support those tribes in every possible way.”
Iraq’s air force carried out two air strikes on Fallujah and the nearby city of Ramadi that killed 55 al-Qaeda fighters, General Ali Ghaidan, chief of the country’s land forces, told al-Sumaria News.
Anti-government fighters captured the al-Mazraa military camp near Fallujah after heavy fighting, Al Jazeera television said.
Halima Ahmed, a health official in the province, said by phone that the death toll in Fallujah during recent days of fighting had reached 36, most civilians killed by army shelling.
Al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge militants from Fallujah and Ramadi. In Syria, the al-Qaeda- linked group has eclipsed Western-backed rebels fighting Assad. While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
“If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker, who served as ambassador from 2007 to 2009. “It’s exactly what they had in Afghanistan before” the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, with almost 18,000 wounded, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
So far, the violence hasn’t affected Iraq’s major oil fields, the country’s main source of revenue. Output rose by 100,000 barrels a day last month to 3.2 million barrels, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey. The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
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