US to evacuate some staff from Iraq embassy after ISIL surge
BAGHDAD–The United States on Sunday said it will evacuate some of its staff from its heavily protected embassy in Baghdad after Islamic militants who captured vast swathes of northern Iraq made a push for the capital.
The evacuated staff, whose number was not disclosed, will be “temporarily relocated” to US consulates in safer Basra in the south and Arbil in the northern Kurdish territories, a US State Department spokeswoman said.
Other staff will be taken to the US embassy in the Jordanian capital of Amman, where they will work on Iraq-related issues.
At the same time, security personnel at the embassy–America’s largest worldwide, and located at Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone–will be boosted because of the “ongoing instability,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. The embassy itself would remain open, she said.
The announcement was made after Iraq affirmed Sunday it had “regained the initiative” against the militants, who are spearheaded by the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group.
US-trained Iraqi forces folded immediately as ISIL surged forward in northern cities and towns, abandoning vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms.
Since then, though, they seem to be recovering and have started to regain ground.
Officers said their forces were now starting to repel the militants, and that soldiers had recaptured two towns north of Baghdad.
‘Neglect’ of Syria
Washington has also deployed an aircraft carrier group to the Gulf as US President Barack Obama said he was weighing “all options” on how to support the Iraqi government. But he has ruled out a return to Iraq for US soldiers, which left the country nearly three years ago after a bloody and costly occupation launched in 2003.
Iran, which supports Iraq’s Shia-led government, has warned against foreign military intervention in the country, voicing confidence that Baghdad can repel the onslaught. But reports suggest it already has a small number of its Revolutionary Guards in Iraq as military advisers.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday Iraq had not asked for his country’s help. But in surprise comments he added that Iran may “think about” cooperating with archfoe America to fight the militants in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said Sunday that Baghdad’s forces have “regained the initiative” and killed 279 “terrorists” in the past 24 hours.
There was no way of independently verifying those assertions, however. Iraqi officials often announce large militant death tolls and downplay their own casualties.
Officials added that security forces and tribal fighters repelled a militant assault in the strategic town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border. It provides a critical corridor for militants to access conflict-hit Syria.
Ten people were killed in militant shelling of the town, and 18 anti-government fighters also died in ensuing clashes.
And militants took control of the Al-Adhim area in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, officers said.
Baghdad’s embattled forces will be joined by a flood of volunteers after a call to arms from top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but a recruitment centre for volunteers came under attack on Sunday, killing six people.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, told AFP he believed the international community’s neglect of the conflict in Syria had precipitated the Iraq crisis.
“It is a well-known rule: a conflict of this kind (in Syria) cannot stay confined within the borders of one country,” said Brahimi, who resigned as UN-Arab League representative to Syria in May.
‘Horrifying’ massacre claims
As Iraqi troops began to drive back the militants, they found grisly scenes, amid reports of summary executions of Iraqi security forces members the militants captured.
Troops found the burned bodies of 12 policemen as they recaptured the town of Ishaqi in Salaheddin province, a police colonel and a doctor said.
Photos posted online were also said to show militants summarily executing dozens of captured members of the security forces in the province.
The United States condemned as “horrifying” claims by ISIL that it had massacred 1,700 Iraqi Shia air force recruits in Tikrit.
The situation on the ground has been further complicated as forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have made territorial advances.
A senior official said Sunday that Kurdish peshmerga forces had taken control of one of two official border crossings with Syria earlier in the week.
Kurdish forces have also seized the disputed ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas, as well as other territory.
Amid the confusion, Iraq launched an air strike on a convoy of Kurdish forces Saturday night near Khanaqin, one area of eastern Iraq where Kurds have moved in, killing six people.
It was not immediately clear if the Kurdish troops were targeted specifically, or it was a case of mistaken identity.
Although violence has eased in Baghdad, apparently as militants concentrate their efforts elsewhere, the capital has not been spared, with a Sunday afternoon bombing killing nine people.–Mohamad Ali Harissi
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