Tense talks for Kerry in Baghdad as ISIL gains ground

Secretary of state’s visit comes after eastward push in Iraq by ISIL, which appears poised to march on key dam

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the prime minister’s office in Baghdad, June 23, 2014.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad on Monday as members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) appeared poised to march toward the city of Haditha and a key dam — the destruction of which would damage the country's electrical grid and cause major flooding. The Iraqi military has dispatched reinforcements to protect the dam.

The Haditha dam may be the ISIL’s next objective after it made an eastward thrust from a newly captured Iraqi-Syrian border post on Sunday, seizing three Iraqi towns in the western province of Anbar as well as two border crossings in a push to evict government security forces from Sunni Muslim areas, witnesses and security sources said.

Sunni tribal groups and the ISIL have been united in their hatred of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government, which many Sunnis accuse of marginalizing their sect. Shia Muslims represent about 60 percent of Iraq’s population.

The meeting scheduled Monday between Kerry and Maliki was not expected to be friendly, given that officials in Washington have floated suggestions that the Iraqi premier should resign as a necessary first step toward quelling the vicious uprising.

Nor will it likely bring any immediate, tangible results, as Maliki has shown no sign of leaving and Iraqi officials have long listened to but ultimately ignored American advice to avoid appearing controlled by the U.S., which occupied the country for more a decade.

A senior State Department official said the insurgents' recent march on Baghdad has been slowed, although concerns remain that the ISIL will attack the golden-domed Shia shrine to Imam Hasan al-Askari in Samarra. That city, in Sunni territory in north-central Iraq, was the site of a 2006 bombing that triggered the worst of the war's sectarian fighting.

The official said Kerry on Monday would not ask Maliki to resign, as some in the United States and Sunni Arab states in the Middle East have demanded, because "it's not up to us." However, Kerry is expected to urge Maliki to quickly create a new government that is far more sensitive to Sunni and Kurdish demands for jobs, power and a fair legal system.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has vehemently condemned the ISIL campaign, with Kerry in neighboring Jordan on Sunday warning that the group is a "threat not only to Iraq but to the entire region."

Also on Sunday, President Barack Obama, in an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation," warned that the ISIL could grow in power and destabilize the region. Washington, he said, must remain "vigilant" but would not "play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops ... wherever these organizations pop up."

Obama has offered up to 300 U.S. Army special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory seized by Sunni armed groups, including the ISIL but has held off on granting a request for air strikes.

The fighting has further fractured Iraq along sectarian lines and highlighted divisions among regional powers, especially Iran, which has said it would not hesitate to protect Shia shrines in Iraq if asked, and Saudi Arabia, which has warned Iran to stay out of Iraq.

The ISIL, a Qaeda splinter group, has pushed the Iraqi army from cities and towns across Iraq's north and west over the past two weeks, shocking the Shia-led government.

The chief military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, spoke on Sunday of tactical withdrawals to regroup and prepare to recover what has been lost to the militants.

"Up until now, we don't have a plan to retake any territory we lost. We are working on one still," said a senior government official close to Maliki's inner circle.

A top Iraqi military intelligence official was equally blunt, saying the battlefield setbacks in Anbar and the north have given the militants much more freedom of movement and their firepower has dramatically increased.

"Their objective is Baghdad, where we are working frantically to bolster our defenses," the official said. "I will be honest with you, even that is not up to the level of what is needed. Morale is low."

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.

Their comments came after ISIL fighters took the Turaibil border crossing with Jordan and the Walid crossing with Syria. Those gains come a week after fighters made one of their biggest scores, seizing the border post near the town of Qaim.

The capture of Syrian border crossings could be especially helpful for the ISIL, which has exploited the chaos of the three-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to establish a major presence there.

Tal Afar, a strategic Shia-majority town in northern Iraq, and its airport were in the hands of Sunni Arab militants on Monday after days of heavy fighting, a local official and witnesses said.

Tal Afar is on a strategic corridor to Syria and had been the largest town in the northern province of Nineveh not to fall to fighters.

"The town of Tal Afar and the airport ... are completely under the control of the militants," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Witnesses said Iraqi security forces had departed the town and confirmed that ISIL fighters were in control.

The ISIL's stated aim is to create a caliphate that ignores boundaries set by colonial powers a century ago. Sunni tribes in the mostly desert border regions span both sides of the frontier.

Sunday also saw armed Sunni groups led by the ISIL expand their grip to the towns of Rawa and Ana along the Euphrates River east of Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba, which is farther south, on the road between Jordan and Baghdad.

The fall of Qaim represented another step toward the realization of the ISIL's military goals, as a 20th-century border appeared to crumble in a day.

A military intelligence official said troops withdrew from Rawa and Ana after ISIL militants attacked the settlements late Saturday night. The towns are on a strategic supply route between ISIL positions in Iraq and eastern Syria, where the ISIL has taken a string of towns and strategic positions from rival Sunni rebels over the past few days.

The last major Syrian town in the region not in the ISIL's hands, the border town of al-Bukamal, is controlled by the Nusra Front, a Syrian Qaeda branch that has clashed with the ISIL but also agreed to local truces at times.

The ISIL, which began as Al-Qaeda in Iraq but was disowned by central Qaeda leadership group in February, has also captured the north's biggest city, Mosul, and pushed down the Tigris River valley, seizing towns and taking large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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