More towns fall in jihadist offensive


BAGHDAD, June 22, (Agencies): Sunni militants advanced through west Iraq after seizing a strategic Syria border crossing, as US Secretary of State John Kerry called Sunday for the country’s leaders to rise above sectarianism. The latest assaults saw the security forces making “tactical” withdrawals in the face of an insurgent onslaught that has displaced hundreds of thousands and alarmed the world amid fears Iraq could tear itself apart. The militants, led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seized the towns of Rawa and Ana after taking the Al-Qaim border crossing on Saturday, residents said.

The government said its forces had made a “tactical” withdrawal from the towns, control of which allows the militants to open a strategic route to neighbouring Syria where they also control swathes of countryside along the Euphrates river valley. ISIL aims to create an Islamic state incorporating both Iraq and Syria, where the group has become a major force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. Washington wants Arab states to bring pressure on Iraq’s leaders to speed up government formation, which has made little headway since April elections.

While American leaders have stopped short of calling for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down — arguing it is up to Iraqis to choose their own leaders — they have left little doubt that they feel the Shiite premier has squandered the opportunity to rebuild his country since US troops withdrew in 2011. “We gave Iraq the chance to have an inclusive democracy. To work across sectarian lines, to provide a better future for their children,” President Barack Obama told CNN Friday. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen is a breakdown of trust.” The seizure of Al-Qaim leaves just one of three official border crossings with Syria in federal government hands. The third is controlled by Kurdish forces.

Anti-government fighters already hold areas of the western desert province of Anbar which abuts the Syrian border, after taking all of one city and parts of another earlier in the year. Elsewhere, government forces launched an air strike on the militant-held city of Tikrit, killing at least 21 people, residents said, as the defence ministry announced air strikes on the northern city of Mosul. The insurgents also clashed with security forces and progovernment tribal fighters in Al-Alam east of Tikrit, with militants killing the women’s affairs adviser to the provincial governor.

The fighting came as Kerry arrived in Cairo on a trip to the Middle East and Europe, with Washington aiming to unite Iraq’s fractious leaders and repel the militants. “We must urge Iraq’s leaders to rise above sectarian considerations… and speak to all people,” Kerry said in Cairo, while also saying that Washington is not responsible for the current crisis. Kerry was also due to visit Amman, Brussels and Paris, where Washington is also expected to push for greater efforts to cut off funding to ISIL. “First and foremost, we are urging countries that have diplomatic dealings with Iraq and that are in the region to take that threat as seriously as we do,” a senior State Department official said. “Second, we are underscoring the need for Iraqi leaders to expedite their government formation process and to come together around a new government that is inclusive.”

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also noted that “a lot of the funding and support that has over a long period of time fuelled extremism inside Iraq has flowed into Iraq from its neighbours.” While Kerry is also expected to travel to Iraq for his second visit since taking over as secretary of state in early 2013, it was not known when he would do so. Washington initially favoured Maliki when he first became premier in 2006 as he was seen to be cracking down on Shiite militias while reaching out to Sunni leaders.

But he has since made what critics say are increasingly sectarian moves, triggering US calls for him to represent all Iraqis, particularly minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Obama has offered to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq, but has so far not backed air strikes as requested by Baghdad. UN aid agencies are rushing supplies to Iraq to help more than one million displaced people. Militants killed 21 leaders in the western Iraq towns of Rawa and Ana during two days of violence, officers and doctors said Sunday, after security forces made a “tactical” withdrawal. Some of those killed were shot dead on Saturday, when the militants moved into the towns, while others were slain the following day.

The killings came after Iraqi security forces members departed the towns, clearing the way for the militant takeover. “The military units’ withdrawal (from Rawa and Ana and Al-Qaim) was for the purpose of redeployment,” Lieutenant General Qassem Atta said, referring to it as a “tactical” move. Witnesses said insurgents moved into Rawa and Ana, in Anbar province, on Saturday evening, after security officers and witnesses also reported militants entering Al-Qaim, a town on the Syrian border, earlier in the day. Anti-government fighters have held all of one city in Anbar province, where the towns are located, and areas of a second since early January.

Beginning late on June 9, militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also including a number of other groups such as loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, overran most of one province and parts of three others north of Baghdad. The security forces wilted in the face of the initial onslaught, in many cases abandoning vehicles, equipment and even their uniforms. They appear to have recovered in the past few days, with officials touting gains against militants, though insurgents have made territorial progress elsewhere.

Rejected Meanwhile, Iran’s top leader rejected possible intervention in Iraq by the United States or other outside powers, accusing Washington on Sunday of trying to manipulate Iraqi sectarian differences to retake control of the country it once occupied. In remarks published by the official IRNA news agency, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added that Iraqis themselves could end violence in their country, where Iran has steadily built up its own influence over the past decade. Another senior figure, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said Tehran did not want to meddle in other nations but also hoped to mediate to “extinguish the fire” in Iraq. Khamenei, who has the last word in all matters in Shi’te Muslim Iran, said: “American authorities are trying to portray this as a sectarian war, but what is happening in Iraq is not a war between Shi’ite and Sunnis.” “It is indeed the same old hegemonic order using leftovers of the Saddam (Hussein) regime as its key pieces, and the Takfiri dogmatic elements as foot soldiers,” he told judiciary officials, using a term referring to Sunni Islamist militants.

Masked jihadists of the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have captured swathes of northern Iraq this month, aiming to create an Islamic Caliphate which ignores boundaries set by colonial powers a century ago. The advance has been driven by an amalgam of Sunni tribal and Islamist militias, and former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, united in hatred of the Shi’ite-led government, which they accuse of marginalising their sect. But ISIL has spearheaded the revolt and assaults on cities and towns. Thousands of Shi’ite Iraqis have responded to calls to take up arms and defend the country against the insurgency. Khamenei said he was strongly opposed to intervention by the United States or other countries in Iraq, adding Washington wanted to re-establish control over the oil-exporting country. “The US is seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges,” Khamenei was quoted as saying. Khamenei made no mention of possible cooperation with the United States on Iraq, an idea that Rouhani, in answer to a question at a June 14 news conference, said Tehran might consider if Washington tackled “terrorist groups” in the region. Khamenei said the conflict in Iraq was not sectarian, but was instead between those who wanted Iraq in the US camp and those who sought Iraq’s independence, IRNA reported. The armed campaign “aimed at disrupting Iraq’s stability and tranquillity, and threatening its territorial sovereignty … the row is mainly between those seeking an independent Iraq and those who want Iraq join the US camp.” Rafsanjani, a close ally of Rouhani who chairs Iran’s Expediency Council, which advises the supreme leader, said: “We don’t want to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs, but hope to be good mediators in trying to extinguish the fire.” But he said Iraq’s plight was complicated because its sectarian conflicts “have taken on the hue of blood.” Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the hardline commander of a volunteer Islamic militia known as Basij, echoed Khamenei’s criticism of Washington. “America is in need of Iraqi oil and its whole effort is bent on recruiting anti- Islamic and fanatical groups to strike a blow against the Islamic nation,” he told IRNA on Sunday. America was harming Iraq by hiring people from Iraq’s Baath Party and mobilizing them under the banner of ISIL. Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia has repeatedly voiced opposition to any foreign intervention in Iraq, in an apparent message to Tehran. Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf Arab countries were aghast when the US occupation after Saddam’s fall in 2003 brought about elections that empowered Iraq’s Shi’ite majority

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