ANBAR, Iraq: Iran’s supreme leader accused the United States Sunday of trying to retake control of Iraq by exploiting sectarian rivalries, as Sunni insurgents secured new strongholds along the Syrian border.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s condemnation of U.S. action in Iraq came three days after President Barack Obama offered to send 300 military advisers in response to pleas from Iraq’s government. It ran counter to speculation that Washington and Tehran might cooperate to defend their mutual ally in Baghdad after two weeks of swift territorial gains by Sunni Islamists and allied tribal and other groups.
“We are strongly opposed to U.S. and other intervention in Iraq,” IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. “We don’t approve of it as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition.”
Some Iraqi observers interpreted his remarks as a warning not to try to engineer the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the wake of a crisis for which many in the West hold him responsible after eight years of government policies that alienated minority Sunnis.“American authorities are trying to portray this as a sectarian war, but what is happening in Iraq is not a war between Shiites and Sunnis,” Khamenei said.
Speaking in Cairo, Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington wanted the Iraqi people to find a leadership that would represent all the country’s communities, but echoed Obama in saying it would not choose those leaders.
He also called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “a threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire region,” warning against the funding of activities that could end up bolstering the group.
“There is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIS,” Kerry said, “and we particularly discourage individuals in the region who may have been sending money through some illicit charity or through various back-channel initiatives under the guise this is for the general welfare and benefit for people who have been displaced, but then that money finds its way into the hands of terrorists.”
Tehran and Washington have been shocked by the lightning offensive, spearheaded by ISIS and including tribal and ex-Baath Party elements, which took swathes of northern and western Iraq, including the major city of Mosul on June 10.
ISIS militants thrust east from a newly captured Iraqi-Syrian border post Sunday, taking three towns in western Anbar province after seizing the frontier crossing near the town of Qaim Saturday, witnesses and sources said.
They seized a second, Al-Waleed, Sunday.
The gains have helped ISIS secure supply lines to Syria, where it has exploited the chaos of the uprising against President Bashar Assad to seize territory.
ISIS’ gains Sunday included the towns of Rawa and Ana along the Euphrates River east of Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba further south on the main highway from Jordan to Baghdad.
A military intelligence official said Iraqi troops had withdrawn from Rawa and Ana after ISIS militants attacked the settlements late Saturday.
“Troops withdrew from Rawa, Ana and Rutba this morning and ISIS moved quickly to completely control these towns,” the official said.
“They took Ana and Rawa this morning without a fight.”
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the withdrawal from the towns was intended to ensure “command and control” and to allow troops to regroup and retake the areas.
“The withdrawal of the units was for the purpose of reopening the areas,” he told reporters in Baghdad.
The last major Syrian town not in ISIS’ hands in the region, the border town of Al-Bukamal, is controlled by the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria that has clashed violently with ISIS for months.
Relations between the diverse Sunni groups in Iraq have not been entirely smooth either. Sunday morning, clashes raged for a third day between ISIS and Sunni tribes backed by the Naqshbandi Army, a group led by former army officers and Baathists, around Hawija, security sources and tribal leaders said.
More than 10 people were killed in the clashes in the area, southwest of the northern oil hub of Kirkuk, the sources said.