Baghdad: Sunni militants captured a major border post into Syria late on Saturday, opening the way for fighters and weapons to move across the border with ease, a development that Iraqi and Western officials described Sunday as worrisome.
The militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seem intent on methodically consolidating their hold on the large Sunni provinces to the west and north as the Iraqi army's attention is focused on securing Baghdad. The US, meanwhile, hinted it could back a new prime minister for Iraq.
The ISIL militants already have considerable strength in Anbar province, but it has been primarily in remote villages and towns, with the exception of Fallujah, which they have also seized. Now, with the taking of the border post of al-Qaim after a three-day fight, and the nearby towns of Ana and Rawaa, they will be able to move on the road that leads to Haditha, where there is a major dam.
The Iraqi prime minister's top military spokesman, General Qassim Atta, in his briefing on Sunday, gave a different interpretation of what had happened in al-Qaim, Rawaa and Ana, saying that the security forces had withdrawn to join the battle elsewhere.
"As a tactical procedure to reopen the military forces in Al-Jazeera and al Badiyah security operation field, the security forces in Rawaa, Ana and Qaim withdraw from these areas to reinforce other troops in other areas," he said.
General Atta did not mention whether the army had also fought in the western town of Rutba, but local officials said the militants drove into the small town with 50 trucks, burned the police station and clashed briefly with the police before taking control.
"Around 50 vehicles full of militants and weapons came from Houran valley and after sporadic clashes with police they took control over the central town," said Ratif al-Ubaid, a member of the Rutba local council. "Then they left a group of them to secure the town and then headed toward the border," he said.
In al-Qaim, it appeared that 70 volunteers from Baghdad who had come to join the battle on the side of the Iraqi army were killed in an ambush. They were travelling in food freezer trucks to camouflage their arrival, but it seemed the militants knew they were on their way, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters. The militants have allowed him to remain in his job, he said.
It was not clear how many Iraqi army soldiers were killed in the fight, but there were many and they fought hard, according to the police.
Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Cairo on the first leg of a trip to try to rally Arab support on the Iraq crisis, said on Sunday that it was important for Iraqis to "find leadership" that could bridge the deep sectarian divides in the country, apparently sending a subtle signal that the United States was open to the selection of a new prime minister there.
The formal US position, which Mr Kerry underscored at a news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, is that the United States is not in the business of picking Iraq's leaders.
But without mentioning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq by name, Mr Kerry noted that the Kurds, the Sunnis and some Shiites had registered unhappiness with Iraq's political leadership, as has Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the influential Shiite spiritual leader who has spoken out about the need to avoid the mistakes of the past in Iraq.
In his swing through Middle Eastern capitals this week, Mr Kerry plans to send two messages on Iraq. One is that Arab states should use their influence to prod Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government quickly.
Another is that they should crack down on funding to the Sunni militants of the ISIL. The group is largely self-sustaining because of its success with extortions and in the plundering of banks in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which it controls. But some funding "has flowed into Iraq from its neighbours," a senior official on Mr Kerry's plane said.
"That does not mean that it's the result of an official government policy in many, if not most, cases," the official added. "But it does mean that some of these governments can do more to stop some of that facilitation."
A second official on the secretary's plane said that during his short visit here, Mr Kerry would make the point that it was in Egyptian political and economic interest to build a more inclusive government.
"We do not share the view of the Egyptian government about links between the Muslim Brothers and terrorist groups," the official said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed the ousted president, Mohammed Mursi, and was outlawed after the military takeover last summer. "With regard to the challenge that the Muslim Brothers pose, I would characterise it more as a political challenge than a security challenge."
New York Times