BAGHDAD: US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) discussions on Iraq on Wednesday, the day after US military advisers began moving into Baghdad as Iraqi forces battle Sunni militants.
Iraqi government troops held off Sunni insurgent attacks on a key town and an oil refinery on Tuesday as Kerry pushed for unity in a conflict the United Nations says has killed nearly 1,100.
But those successes were marred when civilians were killed by air strikes aiming to push back Sunni Muslim insurgents, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have seized swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
The onslaught has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, alarmed world leaders and put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki under pressure at home and abroad.
The first of up to 300 US military advisers began their mission in Baghdad on Tuesday to help the Iraqi army, but the Pentagon said the American troops were not taking on a combat role.
The primary task of the advisers was to evaluate the state of the Iraqi forces and not to turn the tide against militants from ISIL, which have swept across western and northern Iraq, the Pentagon’s press secretary said.
“This isn’t about rushing to the rescue,” Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.
However, the US is ready to carry out bombing raids if called upon, Kirby added.
He also said the United States had expanded its surveillance flights over Iraq, with manned and unmanned aircraft, and now was conducting 30 to 35 sorties a day.
Critical time for iraq
Kerry huddled with European allies late Tuesday, ahead of the key NATO talks in Brussels, after a whirlwind visit to Iraq aimed at shoring up Iraqi unity.
Shortly after flying in on a US military plane, Kerry met with European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton as well as other European partners and “discussed the grave security situation in Iraq,” a spokeswoman said.
He also attended a dinner of foreign ministers from the 28-member alliance.
With crises boiling over in Ukraine and Syria, the Sunni jihadist offensive in northern Iraq has added new urgency to an already-packed NATO agenda, with ministers also due to discuss efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
“As everybody knows this is a very critical time for Iraq,” Kerry warned in Arbil earlier on Tuesday as he met with Kurdish leaders to discuss the ISIL onslaught.
The militant offensive allowed Iraqi Kurds to take control of disputed territory they want to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad’s strong objections.
After wilting in the first attacks two weeks ago, the Iraqi loyalists appear to be performing better against the Sunni insurgents, holding off assaults at the Baiji oil refinery in the north, the country’s largest.
Repeated assaults on the complex, which once provided some 50 percent of domestic refined petroleum products, have caused jitters on world markets.
Iraqi forces also carried out air strikes on the town of Baiji, outside the refinery, and on Husseibah in Anbar province, west of the capital.
State television said 19 “terrorists” were killed in Baiji in the morning, but officials and witnesses said the casualties were civilians. Evening raids killed six more people.
In Husseibah, six civilians were among 13 killed.
Elsewhere, security forces and allied tribal fighters saw off a militant attack on Haditha in Anbar province, after recapturing the Al-Waleed border crossing with Syria on Monday.
Loyalists have struggled to stem the insurgent advance, with Maliki’s security spokesman saying hundreds of soldiers have been killed since the offensive began on June 9—the most specific official information so far on government losses.
The UN said Tuesday at least 1,075 people were killed, an estimated three quarters of whom were civilians, and 658 wounded between June 5 and 22.