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Iraq Insurgency: Militants Plan To March On Baghdad After Seizing 2 Key Sunni Cities

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Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June. 11, 2014. The Iraqi government has tightened its security measures after a stunning assault that exposed Iraq's eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the Iraqi second-largest city. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)
Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June. 11, 2014. The Iraqi government has tightened its security measures after a stunning assault that exposed Iraq's eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the Iraqi second-largest city. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic militants who seized cities and towns vowed Thursday to march on Baghdad to settle old scores, joined by Saddam Hussein-era loyalists and other disaffected Sunnis capitalizing on the government's political paralysis over the biggest threat to Iraq's stability since the U.S. withdrawal.

Trumpeting their victory, the militants also declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul and other areas they have captured.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces moved to fill the power vacuum — taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. The move further raised concern the country could end up partitioned into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.

Three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad, U.S. officials said, and Germany urged its citizens to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad.

President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the United States, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide. Senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in Iraq.

The U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, underscoring the growing international alarm over the stunning advances by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the council president, said the U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, told members by videoconference that "there is no immediate danger of the violence spreading to Baghdad" — that the city "is well protected and the government is in control."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him and his Shiite-led government increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers failed to assemble a quorum.

The Islamic State, whose Sunni fighters have captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the border. It has pushed deep into parts of Iraq's Sunni heartland once controlled by U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes, including in Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul.

Skirmishes continued in several areas. Two communities near Tikirt — the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine — remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials. The price of oil jumped to above $106 a barrel as the insurgency raised the risk of disruptions to supplies.

In its statement, the Islamic State declared it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves, and told residents to attend daily prayers. It said Sunnis in the military and police should abandon their posts and "repent" or else "face only death."

The Islamic State's spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group's confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

"We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there," he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Baghdad does not appear to be in imminent danger of a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital recently.

While ISIL fighters gained the most attention in this week's swift advances, it was increasingly clear that other Sunnis were joining the uprising.

Several militant groups posted photos on social media purporting to show Iraqi military hardware captured by their own fighters, suggesting a broader-based rebellion like that in neighboring Syria.

In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of the late dictator and Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded security forces ever since.

Fighters loyal to his Naqshabandi Army as well as former members of Saddam's Baath Party were the main militant force in Tikrit on Thursday, said a resident who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Mohammed, out of concern for his safety. He said about 300 soldiers surrendered near the governor's office — a spectacle captured in multiple amateur videos posted online.

Lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili as well as two senior intelligence officials, who were not authorized to talk to the press, confirmed the involvement of al-Douri's group and other former Baathists and Saddam-era military commanders. That could escalate the militants' campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising and lead to breaking up the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the U.N., said the rapid fall of Mosul and Tikrit required trust from the local population — something ISIL or al-Douri wouldn't necessarily have on their own.

"Ordinary citizens feel disenfranchised and have no stake in the state anymore," he said. "This is an alliance of convenience where multiple disaffected groups have come to defeat ... a common foe. "

With its large Shiite population, Baghdad would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, they have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki's government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia vowed to defend Shiite holy sites, raising the specter of street clashes and sectarian killings.

Baghdad authorities tightened security and residents stocked up on essentials.

"Everybody I know is worried for the safety of his family as the militants are advancing to Baghdad," said Hazim Hussein, a Shiite shopowner and father of three.

Another Baghdad merchant, Mohammed Abdul-Rahim, a Sunni, lamented that the "future of this country looks more dim than any time in modern Iraqi history."

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Security officials said the Islamic State fighters managed to take control of two weapons depots holding 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were sent to Syria, they said.

The advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April parliamentary elections — the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 — but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

"We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter," Obama said in Washington.

Al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have pleaded with the Obama administration for more than a year for additional help to combat the growing insurgency.

Britain and France said it was up to Iraqi authorities to deal with terrorism and worsening security, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the rapid advances by the militants proved the invasion of Iraq 11 years ago had been a fiasco.

"What is happening in Iraq is an illustration of the total failure of the adventure undertaken primarily by the U.S. and Britain and which they have let slip completely out of control," Lavrov was quoted by Russian state news agencies as saying.

In Shiite powerhouse Iran, President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as "barbaric." Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered support in a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian TV reported. Iran has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security on its borders.

The U.N. Security Council urged a national dialogue including all political and religious groups in Iraq but took no action after discussing the crisis and hearing a closed briefing from Mladenov, the U.N. envoy.

Diplomatic efforts were underway to free 80 Turkish citizens held by militants in Mosul, an official in the Turkish prime minister's office said. The captives include 49 people seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group's autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the ISIL. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary of Kurdish claims on territory.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told The Associated Press. He denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

___

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.

___

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

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The New York Times reports that Baghdad residents are preparing for insurgents to descend on the city, though Iraq's military says they're slowed the rebels' advance:

While some Baghdad residents scrambled to leave, hoarded food or rushed to join auxiliary militias to defend the city, the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and their allies halted their advance within a two-hour drive to the north, and there was no indication that they were seeking to push into Baghdad proper.

Read more at the Times.

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Today 12:38 PM EDT
U.S. Moves Aircraft Carrier
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From the AP:

Hundreds of young Iraqi men gripped by religious and nationalistic fervor streamed into volunteer centers Saturday across Baghdad, answering a call by the country's top Shiite cleric to join the fight against Sunni militants advancing in the north.

Dozens climbed into the back of army trucks, chanting Shiite slogans and hoisting assault rifles, pledging to join the nation's beleaguered security forces to battle the Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has launched a lightning advance across the country.

Read more here.

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From Reuters:

A Sunni Islamist offensive threatening to dismember Iraq seemed to slow on Saturday after days of lightning advances as government forces reported regaining territory in counter-attacks, easing pressure on Baghdad's Shi'ite-led government.

As Iraqi officials spoke of wresting back the initiative against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant insurgents (ISIL), neighboring Shi'ite Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.

Read more here.

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06/13/2014 3:34 PM EDT
'Early 2006 Again'

Martin Chulov writes from Iraq for the Guardian that this week's fighting has once again exposed the divisions among the country's different groups, as well as the divisive policies of its political leader Nuri al-Maliki.

Iraq has suddenly found itself in early 2006 again, in a week that has seen Sunni insurgents once more face off with Shia militias, a major city looted as an army stands by, and the two shrines whose destruction sparked the sectarian war again endangered. This, though, is a crisis like no other for Iraq, eclipsing even the blood-soaked and hopeless war years that pitched sects against each other and whittled out towns and cities. There is no occupying army to hold the country together this time. After the stunning capitulation at the hands of Sunni insurgents this week, there is barely a military left at all.

Go here to read the full report.

-- Eline Gordts

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This image posted on a militant news Twitter account on Thursday, June 12, 2014 shows militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant removing part of the soil barrier on the Iraq-Syria borders and moving through it. (AP Photo/albaraka_news)

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Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Friday that fighters of ISIS allegedly executed at least 15 civilians in northern Syria.

The executions reportedly took place in the village of al-Taliliya, near Ras al-‘Ayn, on May 29.

“While everyone is focused on ISIS’s advances in Iraq, they’re also committing atrocities in Syria, including gunning down civilians,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “ISIS flouts the law, executing civilians at will, while Russia and China paralyze UN Security Council action.”

Read the full announcement here.

-- Eline Gordts

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The Pentagon said on Friday it cannot confirm reports that members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard are fighting in Iraq. "I've seen the press reporting on that ... but I have nothing to confirm that there are Iranian special forces inside Iraq," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, according to Reuters.

Reports emerged on Thursday that Iranian special forces were helping Baghdad in fighting Islamist insurgents that have captures several cities in Iraq this week.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 1:21 PM EDT
UN Warns Of War Crimes

The United Nation warned on Friday war crimes may have possible been committed in Iraq.

From the Associated Press:

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in the fast-deteriorating Iraqi war zone.

In a first estimate of the number of killed and wounded in the area, her office said the number of killed may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded could approach 1,000.

Pillay also shed some light on the brutalities occurring in Iraq, saying her office had received reports of militants rounding up and killing Iraqi army soldiers and 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul.

Her office said it has also learned of summary executions, rape, extrajudicial and reprisal killings, and about civilians being shelled as fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant overran a succession of major cities earlier in the week.

Deeply disturbing, she said, are reports that the fighters, including prisoners they had released from jails in Mosul and provided with arms, have been actively seeking out and sometimes killing soldiers, police and others. She said victims also included civilians, who the fighters believe are associated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Pillay warned those fighting to abide by international law, which requires human treatment of members of armed forces who have laid down their arms. She also stressed that "murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture constitute war crimes."

"I am extremely concerned about the acute vulnerability of civilians caught in the cross-fire, or targeted in direct attacks by armed groups, or trapped in areas under the control of ISIL and their allies," Pillay said.

"And I am especially concerned about the risk to vulnerable groups, minorities, women and children," she said. "There will be particular scrutiny of the conduct of ISIL, given their well-documented record of committing grave international crimes in Syria."

Read more here.

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From Reuters:

(Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Friday he will take several days to review options for how the United States can help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, saying any action would need significant involvement by Iraq itself.

"The United States is not simply going involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together," Obama said, making it clear that he would not send U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.

"We are not going to be able to do it for them," he added.

The threat by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Iraq poses a danger to the people of Iraq and also, potentially Americans, Obama told reporters at the White House.

"This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland," Obama said.

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The United Nations' top human rights official expressed "extreme alarm" over reports of militants carrying out summary executions and civilians being targeted by both sides fighting in Iraq.

"The full extent of civilian casualties is not yet known, but reports suggest the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement on Thursday.

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A senior Iranian official told Reuters that Iran is discussing whether to work together with the Obama administration to help Baghdad fight insurgents that have taken over part of Iraq this week.

"We can work with Americans to end the insurgency in the Middle East," the official said, according to the news service. "We are very influential in Iraq, Syria and many other countries."

Read the full story here.

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06/13/2014 11:39 AM EDT
Pentagon Moves Aircraft Carrier
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06/13/2014 11:22 AM EDT
What Airstrikes May Accomplish

Several U.S. policymakers have expressed their support in recent days for airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq. Yet as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations explains, few of those politicians actually agree on what such airstrikes will accomplish.

Take a look at Zenko's summary of some of those assertions.

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06/13/2014 10:41 AM EDT
Helicopters Bomb Mosque In Tirkit

Sources told Reuters that Iraqi army helicopters fired rockets on a mosque in the city of Tikrit on Friday. It was still unclear if there were casualties, the news service added.

Islamist militants took over the northern city on Thursday.

-- Eline Gordts

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The daughter of Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein told London-based newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi that she is "very happy" about the takeover of Iraqi cities by Sunni militants. Interviewed in Arabic, Raghad Saddam Hussein credited her father's Baath party with aiding ISIS and tribal factions oust Iraqi government forces from northern towns.

-- Charlotte Alfred

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06/13/2014 9:53 AM EDT
Thousands Of Volunteers Sign Up

Thousands of volunteers of all ages have signed up to join the Iraqi army since ISIS militants captured several cities in the war-torn country, Agence France Press reports. The number of recruits is expected to rise over the weekend after popular Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged people to defend their country on Friday.

"If I stayed home and others stayed home, who will go out to defend our honor?" 23-year-old Kamel told AFP in Baghdad. "I heard that volunteering is open to all ages, so I decided to come and participate in the war against ISIS," Kamel's father-in-law, Hamed Kamel Hussein, added.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 9:44 AM EDT
Social Media Platforms Blocked

Martin Chulov of the Guardian reports that Google and YouTube are down in Iraq.

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In a fascinating piece published in the New York Times this morning, Tim Arango reports that some Iraqis appear less fearful of the violence perpetrated by fighters belonging to ISIS than of government airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling.

Arango writes:

The events over the last several days in Mosul — which is majority Sunni, although it has a sizable population of Kurds and some Shiites, too — highlight what critics have said for years: that Sunnis see the army not as a national force but as the protector of the Shiite population. A Western diplomat, in a recent interview, said that in places such as Mosul and Anbar Province, the security forces are regarded as “a foreign force in their own country.”

But residents of Mosul say that so far the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has handled the local population with a light touch. Some residents, hardened by their hatred of the army, spoke of the insurgents almost as if they were a liberating army. The militants, residents said, greet people at checkpoints and ask citizens if they are carrying a weapon, and if the answer is no, they let them on their way.

Read the full report here.

-- Eline Gordts

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Iraqi refugees from Mosul at Khazir refugee camp outside Erbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

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06/13/2014 8:53 AM EDT
PHOTO: Uniforms In Mosul

Sophia Jones reports from Erbil;

Just 500 meters from what is now an ISIS checkpoint outside of the captured city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Iraqi army and police uniforms are strewn on the ground. Their military vehicles are left empty by the side of the road, their doors still open. According to Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi forces from Mosul fled to the Kurdish checkpoint outside of Erbil when they heard ISIS was coming, stripped, changed into civilian clothing, and fled.

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U.S. military planners told CNN that airstrikes against ISIS militants that have captured several Iraqi cities in recent days may not be effective.

CNN details:

Among other complications, U.S. officials don't have good intelligence about where militants are, and even if they did, the militants don't have the kinds of targets -- command and control centers, air defense sites, military bases -- that lend themselves to aerial attacks, the officials said.

Read the full story here.

-- Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 8:34 AM EDT
Sophia Jones Reports From Erbil


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06/13/2014 7:59 AM EDT
Clashes Reported In Diyala
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06/13/2014 7:57 AM EDT
UNHCR Warns
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Reuters reports that Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called on his followers to take up arms and defend the country.

The message was delivered by al-Sistani's representative, Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, during Friday prayers in the city of Kerbala.

--Eline Gordts

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06/13/2014 7:28 AM EDT
UN: Refugee Population Soars

From the Associated Press:

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency says Iraq's refugee population has increased by almost 800,000 this year as the government struggles against rebels and Islamic militants.

The agency says 300,000 people fled for safety this week in Erbil and Duhok as Islamic militants seize control of large areas in northern Iraq.

Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters Friday in Geneva that many of the refugees are arriving with little more than the clothes they wear and have no money and nowhere to go.

Last week, the agency reported that nearly 480,000 people had been driven from their homes by fighting since January between government forces and rebels in western Iraq's Anbar province.

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Around the Web

Iraqi insurgency (post-U.S. withdrawal) - Wikipedia, the free ...

Iraq's Insurgency and the Threat to Oil - Foreign Policy

US Eyes New Aid to Iraq to Curb Insurgent March - ABC News

Across Iraq, Insurgents Show Reach in Attacks

Isis insurgents seize control of Iraqi city of Mosul