BAGHDAD — An al-Qaeda splinter group’s unrelenting drive across western Iraq continued virtually unabated Sunday after a series of victories expanded their access and territory in line with their aim to create an Islamic state spanning Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured the Turaibil border crossing with Jordan and the al-Walid crossing with Syria, witnesses and Iraqi officials confirmed. They declined to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.
The Syrian crossing is particularly problematic as it will allow easier transport of fighters, weaponry and equipment in and out of Syria. ISIL and allies already control the Syrian side of the border crossings.
As the battles intensify, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against U.S. intervention, telling the Iran state news agency IRNA that “Iran believes that people and government as well as religious leaders of Iraq can end the adventurism.”
President Obama weighed in Sunday, telling CBS’ Face The Nation that “right now the problem with (ISIL) is the fact that they’re destabilizing the country” and could turn it into a staging area for global terrorism.
He added that “what we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up. We’re going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy.”
ISIL, in addition to the border crossings, seized the towns of Qaim, Rawah, Anah and Rutba in Anbar province over the weekend.
Iraqi security forces pulled out of these towns as part of a “tactical move,” said Iraqi military spokesman General Qassem Atta.
“We withdrew from Qaim, Rawah and Anah out of tactical reason,” he said. “The plan is to redeploy the units and build strength, create a buildup of forces.”
Security forces in Qaim told USA TODAY that the fighting there went on for two days with officers complaining they were receiving tired, poorly trained fighters as reinforcements from the south. The troops were running out of ammunition, food and water before they were ordered to withdraw.
Azher Mohamad in Qaim saw the Iraqi forces withdraw.
“Afterward, the militants entered the city with pickup trucks, and raised their flags over buildings,” he said. “They asked people to stay home but many families fled to Ramadi.”
In Anah, witnesses said ISIL fighters didn’t need to even raise their guns – security forces had already pulled out.
The towns taken over the past few days give insurgents access to an important dam in the nearby city of Haditha, a cornerstone of Iraq’s electricity grid. It also gives them access to key highways to Syria and Jordan.
The insurgents control Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi in Anbar as well as the key provincial capitals of Mosul and Tikrit.
As ISIL and their allies continued to make gains, Iraqi officials have requested U.S. assistance, specifically airstrikes. Obama has thus far only agreed to send 300 military advisers.
Analysts say that after the Iraqi army was dismantled during the war, what replaced it was not good enough.
“Ten years later we know that they did not succeed,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, referring to U.S. efforts to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces. “I think one of the main reasons is that the Maliki government was not inclusive enough. They gave much more dominance to the Shias in their government and they excluded the Sunnis, so probably now when they need an army which is both Sunni and Shia, the Sunnis don’t feel like fighting for a government which has excluded them.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government is under pressure now to be more inclusive of Sunnis, who have long complained of being disadvantaged in the country. Last week, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key representative of the Shiite majority, called on the Iraqi leader to build a better relationship with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Even so, thousands of volunteers and recruits marched in the capital and other Shiite-dominated cities over the weekend in a show of force intended to boost morale but made minority groups even more nervous. Many fear a return to all-out civil war that hit the country in 2006.
Analysts say the key for al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, might be to reach out to Kurdish leaders such as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebar.
“If the Iraqi government turns to the president who is a Kurd and to the foreign minister who is also a Kurd, and to the Kurdish government, and asks for help, they will probably send their Peshmerga (militia),” said Esfandiari. “They are very good fighters … but (al-Maliki) will have to see what the Kurds want in return.”
Contributing: John Bacon in McLean, Va.; Luigi Serenelli in Berlin
Shiite fighters paraded in Baghdad Saturday in a dramatic show of force aimed at Sunni militants who seized a border crossing, widening a western front in an offensive threatening to rip Iraq apart. Newslook
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1iwkwEN