BAGHDAD — Iraq’s military said Tuesday it repelled an attack by an al-Qaida breakaway group about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Baghdad as the United States weighed options to stem a guerrilla offensive that threatens to fracture the country.
Gunmen from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Monday night attacked a prison in the city of Baquba, unleashing violence in which 43 inmates were killed, Basem al-Samarraie, a spokesman for the eastern Diyala province where the city is located, said Tuesday.
The raid put Baquba on the frontline of a Sunni insurgency that poses the gravest threat to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki since he took power.
Militants stormed the city from two directions and “security forces repulsed both attacks and forced the gunmen to retreat,” al-Samarraie said by phone. The assault created a “state of fear and panic,” he said earlier. In Eskandariya, south of Baghdad, gunmen kidnapped more than 100 people from a vegetable market and took them to an unknown destination, police said.
The conflict between the Sunni-Muslim militants and Maliki’s Shiite-led government is drawing in the U.S. and regional powers including Iran, which said it will fight ISIL should it get closer to its border. President Barack Obama will send about 275 U.S. military personnel to protect diplomatic posts in Iraq, the White House said Monday.
Small teams of special forces may be also sent to advise Iraqis on operations, said Colin Kahl, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who oversaw Middle East affairs at the Pentagon in Obama’s first term.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told Iraqiya TV that foreign countries shouldn’t interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs. The government received requests from 2 million volunteers to fight the insurgents, and has turned down many because there’s no need for such large numbers, he said.
The conflict in Iraq flared after ISIL fighters captured Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city, last week and advanced toward the capital, raising the specter that OPEC’s second- biggest oil producer was on the brink of a sectarian civil war. Government troops killed 23 ISIL fighters in an operation on Mosul’s southern edge, state-sponsored Iraqiya television said today.
U.S. and Iranian officials spoke briefly on Iraq in an initial conversation on the sidelines of talks in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear program, according to a U.S. State Department official who commented on condition of anonymity. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the United States was “open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva Tuesday that he is contacting Iraq’s neighbors over ways to restore stability there.
“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders,” Ban said.
ISIL also is among the mostly Sunni groups fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
It established semi- permanent encampments in desert areas of western Iraq, especially in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, to provide secure bases for its fighters in Syria, the U.S. State Department said in an April report.
As they captured Mosul, militants from ISIL raided the Turkish consulate in the city and kidnapped 49 people, including diplomats, prompting the Turkish government to urge its citizens leave northern and central Iraqi towns.
The Foreign Ministry yesterday told Turkish citizens in the southern oil port of Basra to leave. “It has been decided to updated our security warning to include Basra province due to new evaluation of the security situation,” the ministry said.
The violence is worrying other neighbors of Iraq. In its first public comment on the crisis, Saudi Arabia said yesterday the tensions in Iraq were due to “sectarian policies” that threatened its “stability and sovereignty,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency, which cited a cabinet statement.
Iraq Tuesday said in a statement that Saudi Arabia was responsible for “moral and material support” for the militants.