Iraqi insurgents capture fourth town since Friday – Fox News

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June 21, 2014: Volunteers of the newly formed ‘Peace Brigades’ participate in a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq captured their fourth town in a little more than 24 hours late Saturday, hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Middle East to try to shore up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s faltering government. 

Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) captured the town of Rutba in the western province of Anbar, about 90 miles east of Iraq’s border with Jordan. However, AP reported that residents were trying to negotiate with the militants to leave due to the presence of an army unit that threatened to begin shelling. 

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Rutba is the fourth Anbar town to fall to ISIS fighters and allied Sunni militants since Friday, dealing a serious blow to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

The other three are Qaim, Rawah and Anah, as well as a border crossing with Syria. The towns are the first territory seized in the predominantly Sunni province west of Baghdad since ISIS overran the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi earlier this year.

Sunni militants have carved out a large fiefdom along the Iraqi-Syrian border and have long traveled back and forth with ease, but control over crossings like that one in Qaim allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment to different battlefields. Syrian rebels already have seized the facilities on the Syrian side of the border and several other posts in areas under their control.

Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi acknowledged Qaim’s fall, telling journalists that troops aided by local tribesmen sought to clear the city of “terrorists.”

Sunni militants also captured the Euphrates River town of Rawah, ransacking government offices and forcing local army and police forces to pull out, Mayor Hussein Ali al-Aujail said. The town, which had remained under government control since nearby Fallujah fell, also lies dangerously close to an important dam near the city of Haditha.

The vast Anbar province stretches from the western edges of Baghdad all the way to Jordan and Syria to the northwest. The fighting in Anbar has greatly disrupted use of the highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, a key artery for goods and passengers.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of the country’s north since taking control of the second-largest city of Mosul on June 10 as Iraqi government forces melted away.

The prime minister, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after recent parliamentary elections, also has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Shiite volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces. 

Al-Maliki has come under growing pressure to reach out to disaffected Kurds and Sunnis, with many blaming his failure to promote reconciliation led to the country’s worst crisis since the U.S. military withdrew its forces nearly three years ago.

In Baghdad, about 20,000 militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, many in military fatigues and even some wearing red berets, white gloves and combat helmets, marched through the sprawling Shiite Sadr City district, which saw some of the worst fighting between Shiite militias and U.S. soldiers before a cease-fire was reached in 2008 that helped stem the sectarian bloodshed that was pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Similar parades took place in the southern cities of Amarah and Basra, both strongholds of al-Sadr supporters.

Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most seats in the April vote, but his hopes to retain his job have been thrown into doubt, with rivals challenging him from within the broader Shiite alliance. In order to govern, his bloc, which won 92 seats, must first form a majority coalition in the new 328-seat legislature, which must meet by June 30.

If al-Maliki were to relinquish his post now, according to the constitution, the president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, would assume the job until a new prime minister is elected. But the ailing Talabani has been in Germany for treatment since 2012, so his deputy, Khudeir al-Khuzaie, a Shiite, would step in for him.

The U.S., meanwhile, has been drawn back into the conflict with so much at stake. Obama announced Thursday he was deploying up to 300 military advisers to help quell the insurgency. They join some 275 troops in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy and other American interests.

Obama has been adamant that U.S. troops would not be returning to combat, but has said he could approve “targeted and precise” strikes requested by Baghdad.

Manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are now flying over Iraq 24 hours a day on intelligence missions, U.S. officials say.

Meanwhile, on Saturday four separate explosions killed 10 people, including two policemen, and wounded 22 in Baghdad, according to police and hospital officials. And in an incident harkening back to the peak days of sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007, two bodies, presumably of Sunnis, were found riddled with bullets in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Zafaraniyah, police and morgue officials said.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Iraqi insurgents capture fourth town since Friday – Fox News

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