Iran’s general in Iraq, militants seize key city


BAGHDAD (AP) — In a sign of Iran’s deepening involvement
in the Iraqi crisis, the commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force is
helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni
insurgents advancing across the country, officials said Monday.
signaled a new willingness work with Iran to help the Iraqi government
stave off the insurgency after years of trying to limit Tehran’s
influence in Baghdad — a dramatic shift that would have been unthinkable
a few weeks ago.
The United States is deploying up to 275
military troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American
interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces
soldiers. But the White House insisted anew the U.S. would not be
sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.
insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border
Monday, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both
sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier. West of Baghdad, an army helicopter
was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the
two-man crew, security officials said.
The Quds Force commander,
Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, has been consulting in Iraq on how to
roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group, known as the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant, according to Iraqi security officials.
presence in Iraq is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the
Shiite-led government’s close ties with Tehran.
The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani’s visit.
has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top
commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said.
He has set up an operations room to coordinate the militias and visited
the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most
revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government
forces have faced off with Islamic militants for months.
Islamic State has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the
worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. A call
to arms Friday from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave prominence to the need to defend the holy
Soleimani’s visit adds significantly to the sectarian
slant of the mobilization by the government of Prime Minister Nouri
al-Maliki. Armed Shiite militiamen have been parading on the streets and
volunteers joining the security forces are chanting Shiite religious
Al-Maliki rejects charges of sectarianism and points to
recruiting efforts by some Sunni clerics, but there is no evidence of
Sunnis joining the fight against the Islamic State in significant
numbers, if at all.
The legitimacy accorded by his government to
the Shiite militias poses a risk of Iraq sliding back into the deadly
sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007.
Such tensions were rising
months before the Islamic State’s lightning incursion of last week, with
thousands killed since late last year. Bombings killed Shiites and
security forces as militants took hold of vast territory and at least
one city in the mainly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad.
is one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s security establishment,
and his Quds Force is a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
involved in external operations. In the mid-2000s, it organized Shiite
militias in a campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, according to
American officials. More recently, it has been involved in helping
Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.
visit and the empowerment of the Shiite militias that his Quds Force
trains and arms means Iran could take a role in Iraq similar to the one
it plays in Syria. The Quds Force — along with Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite
fighters — has been crucial to the survival of Assad, himself a member
of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News that Washington
is "open to discussions" with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the
violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government.
A senior
State Department official said the issue was briefly discussed with
Iranian officials Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna.
are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other
regional players," said the official, who was not authorized to speak
publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
official said any engagement with Iran "will not include military
coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the
heads of the Iraqi people."
In a formal report to Congress,
President Barack Obama said the troops in the deployment he was
announcing would be equipped for combat and would remain in Iraq until
the security situation improved. About 160 troops are already in Iraq,
including 50 Marines and more than 100 Army soldiers.
Under the
authorization Obama outlined Monday, a U.S. official said, the U.S.
would put an additional 100 soldiers in a nearby third country where
they would be held in reserve until needed.
Separately, U.S.
officials emphasized that a possible limited special forces mission —
which has not yet been approved — would focus on training and advising
beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the
nation’s north and west.
The capture of the city of Tal Afar was a
key prize for the militants because it sits on a main highway between
Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State
seized last week.
Iraqi military officials said about 500 elite
troops and volunteers were flown Monday to Tal Afar and preparing to try
to retake the city.
Tal Afar, with a population of about 200,000,
is located 420 kilometers (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Its
residents are mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen, raising fears of
atrocities by Islamic State fighters, who brand Shiites as heretics.
the weekend, the group posted graphic photos purporting to show its
fighters killing scores of Iraqi soldiers captured when it overran other
Tal Afar Mayor Abdulal Abdoul said the city was taken just
before dawn. One resident, Hadeer al-Abadi, said militants in pickup
trucks mounted with machine guns and flying black jihadi banners roamed
the streets as gunfire rang out.
The local security force fled
before dawn, and local tribesman who continued to fight later
surrendered to the militants, al-Abadi said as he prepared to leave town
with his family.
Another resident, Haidar al-Taie, said a
warplane dropped barrels packed with explosives on militant positions
inside the city Monday morning, and many Shiite families had left the
town shortly after fighting broke out a day earlier.
are gripped by fear and most of them have already left the town for
areas held by Kurdish security forces," al-Abadi said. The city is just
south of the self-rule Kurdish region and many residents were fleeing to
the relatively safe territory, joining refugees from Mosul and other
areas that have been captured by the militants.
Some 3,000 others from Tal Afar fled west to the neighboring town of Sinjar.
the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Tal Afar was often hit by car bombings and
other attacks by Sunni militants targeting its Turkomen minority.
one point, after a major American offensive in 2006 to drive out
insurgents, then-President George W. Bush declared Tal Afar a success
story that shows "the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people
have been fighting for. … A free and secure people are getting back on
their feet."
Farther south, the ISIL militants battled government
troops at Romanah, a village near another main border crossing to Syria
in Anbar province, according to a security official in Baghdad. The
official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized
to talk to the media.
The Islamic State already controls territory
in Syria in several regions next to the Iraq border. Its fighters move
relatively freely across the porous, unprotected desert border, along
with money, weapons and equipment. Seizing an actual border crossing,
however, would be a major symbolic gain for the group.
Monday, militants ambushed a vehicle carrying off-duty soldiers to
Samarra, a city north of Baghdad that is home to a much-revered Shiite
shrine. Six soldiers were killed and four wounded, a government official
Security has been tightened around Baghdad, particularly on
its northern and western edges, and food prices have dramatically gone
up because of the transportation disruptions on the main road heading
north from the capital.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen.
Saad Maan Ibrahim said Iraqi security forces killed 56 "terrorists" and
wounded 21 just outside the capital in the last 24 hours. He made no
mention of Tal Afar.
Security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has
been strengthened and some staff members sent elsewhere in Iraq and to
neighboring Jordan, the State Department said Sunday.
The State
Department also cautioned U.S. citizens to avoid all but essential
travel to Iraq. The warning said the Baghdad International Airport was
"struck by mortar rounds and rockets" and the international airport in
Mosul also has been targeted.
A senior Baghdad airport official,
Saad al-Khafagi, denied the facility or surrounding areas have been hit.
State-run Iraqiya TV also denied the attack, quoting the Ministry of
The United Nations said it has relocated 58 staff
members from Baghdad, and may move additional personnel out of the
capital due to security concerns.
Associated Press
writers Matthew Lee, Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington, George
Jahn in Vienna, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Sameer N.
Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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