Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published June 24, 2014 at 8:56 PM | Page modified June 25, 2014 at 6:13 AM

  • Share:
           
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Islamist fighters reportedly attempting to encircle Baghdad

A Kurdish official 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 the capital.


McClatchy Foreign Bureau

More on Iraq

U.S. forces arrive: A small contingent of U.S. forces, largely made up of Army Green Berets, has arrived in Iraq to gather intelligence for possible U.S. airstrikes and establish an operations center in Baghdad, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman, told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon. President Obama has authorized as many as 300 troops to be sent to Iraq as advisers, while ruling out a ground combat role.

Senators briefed: On Capitol Hill, senators who left a closed briefing with senior Obama administration officials expressed hope Iraq could soon form a new government, perhaps in the next week, facilitating greater U.S. military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who attended that meeting, backed what he described as an advancing American strategy.

Death toll: The United Nations human rights office said yesterday that at least 1,075 noncombatants have been killed in Iraq from June 5 to June 22. At least 757 Iraqis were killed and 599 injured in the northern provinces of Nineveh, Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces.

Seattle Times news services

advertising

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, including, Kurdish officials said Tuesday, at least two towns that lie on a crucial supply route linking Baghdad, the capital, with the mostly Shiite Muslim south.

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

“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-Maliki. 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.

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.

The official 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.”

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 peshmerga also quickly occupied areas of the split Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk after the army’s retreat. The Kurdish government has long coveted Kirkuk for its symbolism as an ancient Kurdish city and its rich oil fields.

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.

Bridging that gap was the main reason Secretary of State John Kerry was in Irbil on Tuesday, meeting with Barzani, who’s called for replacing al-Maliki.

Despite the country’s dire security deterioration, there’s been no contact between Barzani and al-Maliki since Mosul fell, said spokesman Dizayee and Harry Schute, an American security adviser to the Kurdish Ministry of Interior.

The last contact between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army, Schute said, was when “they handed over the keys to the facilities” in Kirkuk.

Added Dizayee, “Maliki has not been in touch with Kurdish leaders once about the crisis. He’s adopted a stubborn position, and we simply cannot see how to go forward in light of this position.”

During his meeting with Kerry, Barzani told the secretary of state that “we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.” Most analysts thought that statement meant the Kurds were unlikely to relinquish control of Kirkuk or to concede in their battle with Baghdad over oil revenues.

On Monday, Kerry met with al-Maliki officials in an effort to persuade them to reach out to angry Sunnis — who’ve flocked to support ISIS — and the Kurds. At least part of that effort was successful: Dizayee said a delegation of officials from Baghdad would arrive in Irbil on Wednesday to begin talks on the crisis.



Want unlimited access to seattletimes.com? Subscribe now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►