Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) pushed further into Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, laid siege to a police station and battled pro-government Shia militias in overnight clashes that left over 50 dead, Iraqi military officials said Tuesday. The fresh wave of violence comes as 275 American troops were being positioned in and around the country to help secure U.S. assets amid spiraling chaos and bloodshed in the country.
ISIL has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. Their push has largely been unchecked as Iraqi troops and police melted away and surrendered during ISIL’s attacks on the city of Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.
There were conflicting reports on details of the fighting in the al-Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province.
Three police officers said the police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday night by fighters, who tried to free the detainees, all suspected Sunnis. Three Shia militiamen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range, police said.
A morgue official in the provincial capital of Baqouba told the Associated Press many of the slain detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety.
However, Iraq's chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al Moussawi told The Associated Press that 52 detainees who were held at the station in al-Kattoun died when the attackers shelled it with mortar rounds.
Al-Moussawi said the attackers belonged to ISIL, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group that last week captured a large swath of territory in a lightning offensive in northern Iraq. The group is known to be active in Diyala, where Shia militiamen are deployed alongside government forces.
But a call to arms on Friday from Iraq's top Shia cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, raised the specter that the turmoil in Iraq is quickly evolving into a Sunni-Shia conflict.
A United Nations commission on Tuesday warned that "a regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer" as Sunni insurgents advance across Iraq to control areas bridging the Iraq-Syria frontier. It said Iraq's turmoil will have "violent repercussions" in Syria, most dangerously the rise of sectarian violence as "a direct consequence of the dominance of extremist groups."
In other developments, a car bomb explosion on Tuesday in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district killed at least 10 people and wounded 25, according to police and hospital officials.
They said the blast targeted a crowded outdoor market in the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama met with his national security team Monday evening to discuss options for stopping ISIL. Officials said the president has made no final decisions on how aggressively the U.S. might get involved in Iraq, though the White House continued to emphasize that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.
Still, there were unmistakable signs of Americans returning to a country from which the U.S. military fully withdrew more than two years ago. Obama notified Congress that up to 275 troops would be sent to Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad. The soldiers — 170 of which have already arrived in Iraq — were armed for combat, though Obama has insisted he does not intend for U.S. forces to be engaged in direct fighting.
Meanwhile, the crisis has sparked a rare alignment of interests between the U.S. and Iran, which wants to preserve Iraq's Shia-dominated government. The U.S. and Iran are engaged in sensitive nuclear negotiations and used a round of talks Monday in Vienna, Austria, to hold a separate bilateral discussion on Iraq.
In a separate development, Iraq's biggest oil refinery, Baiji, has been shut down and its foreign staff evacuated, refinery officials said on Tuesday, adding that local staff remain in place and the military is still in control of the facility.
Baiji is one of three oil refineries in Iraq and only processes oil from the north. The other two are located in Baghdad and the south and are firmly under government control and operational.
"Due to the recent attacks of militants by mortars, the refinery administration decided to evacuate foreign workers for their safety and also to completely shut down production units to avoid extensive damage that could result," a chief engineer at the refinery said on condition of anonymity.