Islamists close in on Baghdad

Militants capture at least two towns that lie on a crucial supply route linking the Iraqi capital with the mostly Shiite south.

MCCLATCHY FOREIGN BUREAUJune 25, 2014 

  • OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

    • Ninety U.S. military advisers arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday to begin assessing Iraqi security forces' ability to regain control of the embattled country, with the Pentagon acknowledging for the first time that the Iraqi capital could fall to Islamist militants.

    The new arrivals joined 40 American troops sent to Baghdad on June 15 to form 130 of as many as 300 U.S. forces that President Barack Obama announced last week he was rushing to Iraq to help counter a two-week offensive by the militants.

    Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the 130 Americans would take two to three weeks to assess the current security situation and recommend how to dispatch the rest of the military advisers to Iraq.

    • Iraq's top Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, warned visiting Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday that a rapid Sunni insurgent advance has already created "a new reality and a new Iraq," signaling that the U.S. faces major difficulties in its efforts to promote unity among the country's divided factions.

    Kerry said at the start of an hourlong meeting that the Kurdish security forces have been "really critical" in helping restrain the insurgents.

    "This is a very critical time for Iraq, and the government formation challenge is the central challenge that we face," Kerry said. He said Iraqi leaders must "produce the broad-based, inclusive government that all the Iraqis I have talked to are demanding."

    • Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is ready to concede, at least temporarily, the loss of much of Iraq to Sunni insurgents and is instead deploying the military's best-trained and equipped troops to defend Baghdad, Iraqi officials told The Associated Press Tuesday.

    Statesman wire reports

IRBIL, Iraq - Iraq's dire situation has gone from bad dream to nightmare in two weeks of fighting that have seen Sunni Muslim gunmen assert control over a growing area, Kurdish officials said Tuesday.

The fall of towns in an area that American troops knew as the "Triangle of Death" because of its propensity for violence provided an ominous signal that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its Sunni allies are working to encircle Baghdad, the Kurdish officials said.

"The picture is no longer scary," said Shafin Dizayee, the spokesman for the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil. "It has become close to a nightmare scenario, where we see Daash expanding and taking control of its borders." "Daash" is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Another Kurdish official, Jabbar Yawar, the spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga militia, said ISIS fighters apparently had seized control of the towns of Iskandariya and Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, and were reported in some instances to be just six miles from Baghdad.

"This area controls access to southern Iraq, and it appears as if they might try to push into Baghdad or even south towards the city of Hilla," he said.

Southern Iraq is mostly Shiite, and it supports the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. Thousands of young men from the south have flocked to Baghdad to bolster the flagging army, and many observers have assumed that the flow of southern militiamen would help stem an ISIS advance that's captured much of northern and central Iraq in the weeks since the city of Mosul fell under ISIS control June 10.

TIPPING THE SCALE

But the loss of the southern approaches to the capital would change that calculus and add to the sense that Baghdad was gradually being isolated. On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers lost control of the last major crossing point to Syria, while gunmen allied with ISIS took control Monday of Tirbil, Iraq's only land crossing to Jordan. Anbar province, to Baghdad's west, has been largely under ISIS' sway since last year, and the group is now contesting government forces in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, to the capital's north and east.

As one town after another has fallen, the Iraqi government has insisted that most of the lost territory remains in government hands. But officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government provide a decidedly different view, one lent credibility by Kurdish estrangement from the al-Maliki government and ISIS. Their assessment of what's taking place in Iraq also matches that of a U.S. defense official, who said ISIS and its allies were consolidating control of the Euphrates River Valley in apparent preparation for attacks on Baghdad.

IRAQIS STRUGGLING

The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said Iraqi security forces were struggling to establish a defensive line centered on Samarra, a key city that controls the northern approaches to Baghdad. In a separate briefing, a senior U.S. intelligence official said ISIS was also menacing the Iraqi air base at Balad, the country's largest military installation.

The only good news for the al-Maliki government, the Kurdish officials said, appeared to come from Baiji, where, the Kurds said, government troops remain in control of at least part of Iraq's largest oil refinery. A government pullout from the refinery, which some news outlets reported Tuesday, would be an economic disaster for the government and a boon for ISIS. The facility produces 60 percent of Iraq's gasoline.

"My information is that there is still fighting inside the refinery," Yawar said. "When I last spoke with military officials in Baghdad, they said that about half the facility was in government hands and the other half in Daash hands and the government was sending special forces reinforcements from the besieged city of Samarra."

AVOIDING EACH OTHER

So far, ISIS and its allies have mostly avoided direct confrontation with the Kurds' peshmerga militia, which has a reputation for military effectiveness, and the peshmerga has largely avoided direct confrontations with the Sunni insurgents, refusing to assist Iraq's army in repulsing ISIS beyond establishing a security line outside Kurdish territory, which stretches from the northern borders with Syria and Turkey south to the Iranian border. That Kurdish arc has remained more or less peaceful since the rebellion began.

The estrangement between the Kurds and al-Maliki's government is enormous. In the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, al-Maliki accused the Kurdistan Regional Government's president, Massoud Barzani, of collaborating with ISIS, and the Kurds and al-Maliki have verbally battled over the Kurds' push for autonomy and efforts to bypass Baghdad on oil sales.

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