BAGHDAD: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday pledged “intense” support for Iraq against the “existential threat” of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west.
Kerry’s surprise visit came as insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) made major advances in a strategic town and along the country’s border with Syria.
The assault has not only put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki under pressure, but also displaced hundreds of thousands and threatened to tear the country apart.
Kerry met with Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to urge a speeding up of the government formation process following April elections in order to face down the insurgents.
Washington’s “support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” Kerry said at the US embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
“This is a critical moment for Iraq’s future,” Kerry said. “It is a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders, and it’s a moment of great urgency. Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq’s leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands.”
Maliki also emphasised the danger of the crisis, telling Kerry it “represents a threat not only to Iraq but to regional and international peace.”
Iraqi security forces are struggling to hold their ground in the face of militants who have seized major areas of five provinces.
Maliki’s security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said “hundreds” of soldiers were killed since the offensive began two weeks ago — the most specific information by the government so far on losses in security ranks.
The militants are continuing their charge, overrunning the Al-Waleed border crossing with neighbouring Syria, officers said Monday.
Capturing Al-Waleed means all official crossings with Syria to the west are outside government control, and increases the militants’ ability to bring men and materiel across the border.
Insurgents also overran the strategic Shia-majority northern town of Tal Afar and its airport, an official and witnesses said Monday.
Witnesses said security forces left the town after days of heavy fighting. Atta said security forces were still fighting in the Tal Afar area, but added: “Even if we withdrew from Tal Afar or any other area, this does not mean that it is a defeat.”
The town, located along a strategic corridor to Syria, had been the largest in the northern province of Nineveh not to fall to militants.
The latest advances came after insurgents at the weekend swept into the towns of Rawa and Ana in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, after taking the Al-Qaim border crossing with Syria.
The government said made a “tactical” withdrawal from the towns, control of which allows the militants to widen a strategic route to Syria where they also hold stretches of territory.
As Kerry began his visit, 69 detainees were killed in an attack by militants on a convoy carrying them in Babil province.
One policeman and eight gunmen were also killed in clashes that erupted during the attack in the Hashimiyah area, according to a police captain and a doctor.
Elsewhere, a family of six was killed on Baghdad’s northern outskirts, while five Kurdish security forces members died in a bombing in northern Iraq.
ISIL aims to create an Islamic state incorporating both Iraq and Syria, where the group has become a major force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Washington wants Arab states to bring pressure on Iraq’s leaders to speed up government formation, which has made little headway since April elections, and has tried to convince them ISIL poses as much of a threat to them as to Iraq.
Kerry warned all countries, particularly in the Gulf, that “there is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIL.” The group has commandeered an enormous quantity of cash and resources as a result of the advance, bolstering coffers that were already the envy of militant groups around the world.
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