Baghdad digs in for final stand

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Iraqi men who volunteered to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq stand on army trucks as they leave a recruiting center in the capital Baghdad on Friday. AFP PHOTO

Iraqi men who volunteered to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq stand on army trucks as they leave a recruiting center in the capital Baghdad on Friday. AFP PHOTO

BAGHDAD: Iraq has bolstered Baghdad’s defenses as militants near the capital pressed an assault that was launched in the second city Mosul, the interior ministry spokesman said on Friday.

“We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad,” Brigadier General Saad Maan told Agence France-Presse.

“The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as [observation]balloons and cameras and other equipment,” Maan said.

He said coordination between security forces had also been increased.


“We have been in a war with terrorism for a while, and today the situation is exceptional,” Maan said.

A major offensive launched by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies late Monday has overrun Mosul and a swathe of northern and north-central Iraq.

Security forces have so far failed to halt the drive, with some throwing away their uniforms and abandoning vehicles and positions to flee.

With the militants closing in on the capital, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided northern city they have sought to rule for decades against the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari acknowledged the security forces that Washington invested billions in training and equipping before withdrawing its own troops in 2011 had simply melted away.

US President Barack Obama said Iraq was going to need “more help from the United States and from the international community.”

“Our national security team is looking at all the options . . . I don’t rule out anything,” he said.

Russia said the lightning gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a movement so radical it has been disavowed even by the al-Qaeda leadership, showed the pointlessness of the 2003 US-led invasion, carried out in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Washington found rare common cause with its longtime foe Tehran, with both voicing dismay at the Sunni extremists’ advance and pledging to boost aid to Iraq’s beleaguered Shiite prime minister.

The militants, who have swept up a huge swathe of predominantly Sunni Arab territory in northern and north-central Iraq since launching their offensive in the second city Mosul late on Monday, advanced into ethnically divided Diyala province.

Late Thursday, they captured the Jalawla and Saadiyah areas of the province, whose mixed Arab, Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite population has made it a byword for violence ever since the 2003 overthrow of Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani vowed the jihadists would not stop there, but would press on to the capital and the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, visited by millions of pilgrims from around the world each year.

Emergency rule meet failure
The Shiite-led government in Baghdad has been left floundering by the speed of the jihadist assault.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he would seek parliament’s authorization to declare a state of emergency but members of parliament (MPs) failed to muster a quorum for the vote on Thursday.

Only 128 out of 325 MPs showed up for the session, a senior official said.

The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, earlier this year. It has been a blow for Western governments that have paid a steep price both in lives and money in Iraq.

The Iraqi foreign minister acknowledged the collapse of the security forces in Mosul and other cities, with many personnel melting away after discarding their uniforms.

“It is a setback definitely for the Iraqi security forces, who collapsed in the largest city and abandoned their weapons and equipment,” he said.

Zebari said the security forces were mounting a fightback in Tikrit —the hometown of the now executed Saddam—and witnesses and officials reported air strikes on the dictator’s former palace in the town as well as a former army base taken over by militants in Mosul.

Washington is considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, a US official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

Resorting to such aircraft—used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in a highly controversial program— would mark a dramatic shift in the US engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011.

But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died during the conflict.

US companies were evacuating “a few hundred” American contractors working with the Iraqi government from Balad air base, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital, a US defense official said.

The contractors “are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

AFP

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