BAGHDAD: Fighting erupted at the northern approaches to Baghdad Tuesday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired several top security officers over advances spearheaded by ISIS.
Top officers, including Lt. Gen. Mehdi Sabah Ghawari, the top commander for Ninevah province where Sunni fighters have gained ground, were fired because they “failed to fulfill their professional and military duties,” according to a government statement read out on state television.
One of the commanders, Hidayat Abdulraheem, had fled a battle and would be referred to the military court to be tried in absentia, it said.
Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria insurgents, backed by fighters from disgruntled tribal and other factions, launched a lightning assault on June 9 they have captured Mosul, a city of 2 million people, and a big chunk of mainly Sunni Arab territory stretching south toward the capital. Maliki Monday blamed “traitors” for the sudden fall of Mosul, promising to carry out a purge in the wake of the disaster.
The offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and sent jitters through world oil markets as the militants have advanced ever nearer Baghdad, leaving the Shiite-led government in disarray.
Officials said Tuesday that militants briefly held parts of the city of Baqouba, just 60 kilometers from the capital.
They also took control of most of Tal Afar, a strategic Shiite-majority town between Mosul and the border with Syria, where ISIS also has fighters engaged in that country’s three-year-old civil war.
The overnight attack on Baqouba, which was pushed back by security forces but left 44 prisoners dead at a police station, marked the closest that fighting has come to the capital.
In Tal Afar, ISIS controlled most of the town but some resistance remained.
Soldiers, police and armed residents held on to parts of its airport, according to the deputy head of the provincial council, Nureddin Qabalan.
Further south, security personnel abandoned the Iraqi side of a key crossing on the border with Syria, officers said.
Syrian rebel groups opposed to ISIS, who already controlled the other side of the Al-Qaim crossing, advanced across the border to take over.
The Iraqi army left the Rabia border crossing to Kurdish forces last week.
In ethnically mixed Kirkuk province, militants took control of the village of Multaqa, but were repelled by security forces in Bashir village.
A relative calm in Baghdad, meanwhile, was shattered by a string of bombings that left 17 people dead.
Also in the capital, the bullet-riddled bodies of four men in their late 20s or early 30s, presumably Sunnis, were found at different locations in the Shiite neighborhood of Benouk, according to police and morgue officials.
The violence has stoked regional tensions, with Iraq accusing Saudi Arabia of “siding with terrorism” and of being responsible for financing the militants.
The comments came a day after the kingdom blamed “sectarian” policies by Iraq’s government for triggering the unrest.
The prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region told the BBC it would be “almost impossible” for the country to return to how it was before the offensive, and called for Sunni Arabs to be granted an autonomous region of their own.
Alarmed by the collapse of much of the security forces in the face of the advance, foreign governments have begun pulling out diplomatic staff.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced that around 275 military personnel “equipped for combat” were being deployed to Iraq to help protect the embassy in Baghdad and assist U.S. nationals.
Washington has already deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf, but Obama has ruled out a return to combat in Iraq for U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. State Department said that it is open to talks with Iran about Iraq but that any such discussions are likely to take place at a lower level.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that “Iraqis have to put together and hold together” to end the violence.
Biden made the comments Tuesday in Brazil’s capital Brasilia.
Iraqi officials confirmed that the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad had shut down, although they said government troops still held the vast compound. Foreign workers were evacuated by Iraqi government helicopters.