Iraq’s army fought with an al-Qaeda breakaway group to recapture territory near the borders with Jordan and Syria as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Iraqi leaders to unite against the militants.
Iraqi forces regained control of the Traibil border post with Jordan and the Al-Waleed crossing into Syria, state-run Iraqiya television reported today. Both positions had been taken by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the group that seized parts of northern Iraq earlier this month, according to local officials. Jordan sent tanks and troops to reinforce its border with Iraq, Al Arabiya television said.
In Baghdad, Kerry met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as ministers and party leaders. He told reporters after the talks that Iraq faces an “existential threat,” and said U.S. support “will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective.”
The Sunni militant group ISIL has extended its gains in Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, since capturing Mosul, the country’s biggest northern city, on June 10. The U.S., which withdrew its troops from Iraq three years ago, has put the onus on Iraq’s leaders, including the Shiite premier Maliki, to form a more inclusive government. Maliki has been accused of sidelining Iraq’s Sunni minority, prompting some of them to side with ISIL.
President Barack Obama told CBS in an interview that will be aired in full today that the fighting could spread to “allies like Jordan.” The militants “are engaged in wars in Syria where -- in that vacuum that’s been created -- they could amass more arms, more resources,” the president said, according to a transcript.
In their advance toward the Jordan border the militants took Rutba, about 145 kilometers (90 miles) to the east, Faleh al-Issawi, deputy chief of Anbar’s provincial council, said by phone. The Jordanian army didn’t immediately respond to a request for information about the border.
Oil prices have risen on the turmoil in Iraq, with Brent crude trading near a nine-month high. Brent for August settlement pared gains today, dropping 0.4 percent to $114.38 a barrel at 2:40 p.m. in London.
The unrest has raised fears of another sectarian civil war similar to the one that engulfed Iraq in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and the one raging now in neighboring Syria, where ISIL rose to prominence fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Shiite politicians and religious leaders have called on volunteers to take up arms. Thousands of armed Shiite militiamen staged military-style parades on June 21 in cities including Baghdad, Basra, Najaf and Kut, according to footage on Al Arabiya television. Many of Iraq’s Shiite leaders, including Maliki, have received support from Iran, the region’s main Shiite power, which has said ISIL must be stopped.
The U.S. is pressing Iraq’s politicians, who are negotiating a new coalition after April elections left no party with a majority, to accelerate the process and form a broad- based administration capable of rallying the population against ISIL. The U.S. wants a government in Baghdad “that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq, that is prepared to be inclusive and share power,” Kerry said in Cairo yesterday.
Obama declined last week to say that he continues to have confidence in Maliki, spurring speculation that the U.S. may seek to back another leader. Kerry said today that the U.S. won’t choose a leader for Iraq or set conditions for who can join its next government.
“Clearly Kerry is carrying a message to Maliki to change the system,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview today. “America and allies want to see a change at the top but this is going have to be acceptable to Iran because Tehran’s man in Baghdad is Maliki.”
After the last election in March 2010, it took about eight months to form a coalition.
ISIL militants and Sunni supporters now control territory in Iraq from Mosul in the north to Rutba in the west. Their fighters attacked a prisoner convoy around Hillah, south of Baghdad, in an attempt to free the detainees, and 77 people were killed, local police said.
ISIL also extended its control further north. The remaining Iraqi forces in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, withdrew into Kurdish- controlled territory, leaving the town in the hands of the militants, Jabar Yawar, an official in the Kurdish administration that runs part of northern Iraq, said by phone yesterday. ISIL took the town of Sharqat in Salahuddin province, about 200 miles north of Baghdad, after fierce fighting yesterday, Al-Jazeera television said.
The U.S. invasion helped bring Iraq’s Shiite majority to power, alienating Sunnis who dominated the country during Saddam Hussein’s era.
Sunni Muslims are a majority in Anbar province and in areas north of Baghdad. The Shiites are the majority in the south, which has been spared the fighting so far and is home to 60 percent of the country’s crude reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Crude oil shipments from southern Iraq have been mostly unaffected by the fighting. Kurds are defending the Kirkuk oilfield in the north, where exports have been halted since March by attacks on the pipeline. Iraq pumped 3.3 million barrels a day last month.
Obama has authorized the deployment of as many as 300 special operations advisers to Iraq, while stressing that the burden is on Iraqi leaders to resolve the crisis.
Kerry said today that the forces are entering the country and taking up their “various assignments.” He said Obama has reserved the right to decide on further action such as air strikes against ISIL.
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