MOSUL/BAGHDAD: The insurgent offensive that has threatened to dismember Iraq spread to the northwest of the country Sunday, when Sunni militants overran a town close to the Syrian border, clashing with police and government forces.
As the rapid advance south by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) toward Baghdad appeared to slow over the weekend, fierce fighting erupted in the town of Tal Afar 60 km west of Mosul near the Syrian border, security sources and a local official said.
ISIS fighters and other Sunni armed groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad after seizing Mosul nearly a week ago – an offensive which only stalled as it approached the mainly Shiite capital.
The advance has alarmed both Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s supporters in Iran and officials in the U.S., which helped bring him to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
Washington is beefing up security at its embassy in Baghdad and will move some workers out of the Iraqi capital, the U.S. State Department said Sunday.
The State Department said U.S. citizens in Iraq were advised to exercise caution and limit travel in five provinces, including restive Anbar in the west and Kirkuk in the north.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he was reviewing all military options short of sending troops to combat the insurgency, and Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. archenemy to help restore security in Iraq.
Maliki’s security forces and allied militias regained some territory Saturday, easing part of the pressure on his government, and officials said they were regaining the initiative. Maliki has vowed to rout the insurgents.
But Sunday’s fighting in Tal Afar, a majority Turkmen town which is home to both Shiites and Sunnis, showed how volatile the deepening sectarian divisions have become.
Residents in Sunni districts accused Shiite police and army forces of launching mortar fire at their neighborhoods, prompting ISIS forces stationed outside the town to move in.“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can’t leave town,” a local official said. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”
Over Mosul, an Iraqi military jet came under anti-aircraft fire from ISIS fighters, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear whether it was preparing to attack ISIS positions or was carrying out reconnaissance.
In Baghdad, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the center of the capital, police and medical sources said.
And at least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting center in Khlais, 50 km north of Baghdad.
Volunteers were gathered by the army to join fighting to regain control of the northern town of Udhaim from ISIS militants.
They were some of the thousands who responded to a call by the country’s most influential Shiite preacher to take up arms and defend the country against the hard-line insurgents, many of whom consider Shiites heretics.
The situation on the ground has been further complicated as forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have made territorial advances.
A senior official said that Kurdish peshmerga forces had taken control of one of two official border crossings with Syria earlier in the week.
Kurdish forces have also seized the disputed ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas, as well as other territory.
Amid the confusion, Iraq launched an airstrike on a convoy of Kurdish forces Saturday night near Khannaqin, one area of eastern Iraq where Kurds have moved in, killing six people. It was not clear if the strike was deliberate.
While expressing support for Iraq’s government, Washington has stressed the need for a political solution to the crisis.
Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraq’s foreign minister in a call Saturday that U.S. assistance would only succeed if Iraqi leaders set aside their differences to confront the insurgent threat.
Also Saturday, the United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on Baghdad.
Oil prices have risen to the highest level this year over fears of the violence disrupting exports from OPEC member Iraq.
Iran warned Sunday that “any foreign military intervention in Iraq” would only complicate the crisis, voicing confidence that Baghdad “has the capacity and necessary preparations for the fight against terrorism.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday Iraq had not asked for its help, but added that Tehran may “think about” cooperating with Washington to fight the militants in Iraq, despite their lack of diplomatic relations for more than three decades.
Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican critic of the American president, also called for direct engagement with Tehran, warning that the unrest in Iraq would give extremists a staging area for “the next 9/11.”
In Cairo, a meeting of Arab League ambassadors condemned the “terrorist danger” facing Iraq but did not discuss military assistance.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the former U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, told AFP the international community’s neglect of the conflict in Syria had precipitated the Iraq crisis. “It is a well-known rule: A conflict of this kind [in Syria] cannot stay confined within the borders of one country.”