ANBAR, Iraq June 21 (Reuters) – Sunni fighters have seized a border post on the Iraq-Syria frontier, security sources said, smashing a line drawn by colonial powers a century ago in a campaign to create an Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran.
The militants, led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), first moved into the nearby town of al-Qaim on Friday, pushing out security forces, the sources said on Saturday.
Once border guards heard that al-Qaim had fallen, they left their posts and militants moved in, the sources said.
Sameer al-Shwiali, media adviser to the commander of Iraq’s anti-terrorist squad, told Reuters the Iraqi army was still in control of al-Qaim.
Al-Qaim and its neighboring Syrian counterpart Albukamal are on a strategic supply route. A three-year-old civil war in Syria has left most of eastern Syria in the hands of Sunni militants, now including the Albukamal-Qaim crossing.
The Albukamal gate is run by al Qaeda’s official Syria branch, the Nusra Front, which has clashed with ISIL but has sometimes agreed to localized truces when it suits both sides.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, Rami Abdulrahman, said ISIL had pushed the Nusra Front out from many areas of eastern Syria in the past few days and their capture of al-Qaim will allow them to quickly move to the Syrian side.
ISIL already controls territory around the Albukamal gate, effectively pinching the Nusra Front between its forces in Syria and those in neighboring Iraq, said Abdulrahman, who tracks the violence.
The al Qaeda offshoot has captured swathes of territory in northwest and central Iraq, including the second city, Mosul. They have seized large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army and looted banks.
World powers are deadlocked over the crises in Iraq and Syria. Shi’ite Iran has said it will not hesitate to protect Shi’ite shrines if asked by Baghdad but Sunni-run Saudi Arabia has warned Tehran to stay out of Iraq.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 U.S. special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory seized by ISIL and other Sunni armed groups across northern and western Iraq.
But he has held off granting a request for air strikes to protect the government and renewed a call for Iraq’s long-serving Shi’ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.
The fighting has divided Iraq along sectarian lines. The Kurds have expanded their zone in the northeast to include the oil city of Kirkuk, which they regard as part of Kurdistan, while Sunnis have taken ground in the west.
The government has mobilized Shi’ite militia to send volunteers to the front lines.
In Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, thousands of fighters wearing military fatigues marched through the streets.
They carried rocket-propelled grenades, semi-automatic rifles and trucks had mounted long-range rockets, including the new 3-meter “Muqtada 1” missile, named after Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has tens of thousands of followers.
Sadr has yet to throw his fighters into the recent wave of fighting but has accused Maliki of mishandling the crisis.
“These brigades are sending a message of peace. They are the brigades of peace. They are ready to sacrifice their souls and blood for the sake of defending Iraq and its generous people,” a man on a podium said as the troops marched by.
The fighting, with strong sectarian overtones, is pushing the country towards civil war.
Iraq’s largest refinery, Baiji, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, has been transformed into a battlefield.
“Last night, three attacks on Baiji refinery were repelled and attackers … More than 70 terrorists were killed and more than 15 vehicles were destroyed,” said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief.
He showed aerial footage of cars and people being blown up but details of the fighting could not be independently confirmed.
The conflict has displaced tens of thousands. On Saturday evening, 15 people were wounded by a army helicopter strike in the village of Al Bu Saif, south of Mosul city, medics said.
A health official in Mosul said the wounded included two children and seven women. “Most of them are from the same family. Three are in critical condition from shrapnel wounds,” he said.
As in Syria, ISIL has started to clash with other Sunni militias in Iraq. In the town of Hawija, ISIL and members of the Naqshbandi Army, made up of former army officers as well as loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath party, started fighting on Friday evening, witnesses said.
They said the clashes, in a dispute over power, killed 15 people.
“Hawija is falling apart,” a senior tribal figure from the community said before the clashes. “There are so many groups working with ISIL. Each group has its agenda.”
Hawija could be seen as the spark for Iraq’s current armed Sunni insurgency. In April 2013, Sunni protesters said security forces shot dead at least 50 of them. They were demanding greater rights from the Shi’ite-led government. After the killings, violence soared in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Roche)
BAGHDAD — Sunni insurgents led by an al-Qaida breakaway group expanded their offensive in a volatile western province on Saturday, capturing three strategic towns and the first border crossing with Syria to fall on the Iraqi side.
It’s the latest blow against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting for his political life even as forces beyond his control are pushing the country toward a sectarian showdown.
In a reflection of the bitter divide, thousands of heavily armed Shiite militiamen — eager to take on the Sunni insurgents — marched through Iraqi cities in military-style parades on streets where many of them battled U.S. forces a half decade ago
The towns of Qaim, Rawah and Anah are the first territory seized in predominantly Sunni Anbar province, west of Baghdad, since fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group overran the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi earlier this year.
The capture of Rawah on the Euphrates River and the nearby town of Anah appeared to be part of march toward a key dam in the city of Haditha, which was built in 1986 and has a hydraulic power station that produces some 1,000 megawatts. Destruction of the dam would adversely impact the country’s electrical grid and cause major flooding.
Iraqi military officials said more than 2,000 troops were quickly dispatched to the site of the dam to protect it against a possible attack by the Sunni militants. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Rawah’s mayor, Hussein Ali al-Aujail, said the militants ransacked the town’s government offices and forced local army and police forces to pull out. Rawah and Anah had remained under government control since nearby Fallujah fell to the Sunni militants in January.
The Islamic State’s Sunni militants have carved out a large fiefdom along the Iraqi-Syrian border and have long traveled back and forth with ease, but control over crossings like that one in Qaim allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment to different battlefields. Syrian rebels already have seized the facilities on the Syrian side of the border and several other posts in areas under their control.
Police and army officials said Saturday that the Sunni insurgents seized Qaim and its crossing, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Baghdad, after killing some 30 Iraqi troops in daylong clashes Friday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, said people were now crossing back and forth freely.
Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi acknowledged Qaim’s fall, telling journalists that troops aided by local tribesmen sought to clear the city of “terrorists.”
The vast Anbar province stretches from the western edges of Baghdad all the way to Jordan and Syria to the northwest. The fighting in Anbar has greatly disrupted use of the highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, a key artery for goods and passengers.
Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of the country’s north since taking control of the second-largest city of Mosul on June 10 as Iraqi government forces melted away.
The prime minister, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after recent parliamentary elections, also has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Shiite volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces.
The parades in Baghdad and other mainly cities in the mainly Shiite south revealed the depth and diversity of the militia’s arsenal, from field artillery and missiles to multiple rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, adding a new layer to mounting evidence that Iraq is inching closer to a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Al-Maliki has come under growing pressure to reach out to disaffected Kurds and Sunnis, with many blaming his failure to promote reconciliation led to the country’s worst crisis since the U.S. military withdrew its forces nearly three years ago.