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Iraq villagers flee militant advance

by DIAA HADID Associated Press on June 26, 2014 10:35 AM

KALAK, Iraq — Hundreds of Iraqi villagers fleeing advances by Sunni militants crowded at a checkpoint on the edge of the country’s Kurdish-controlled territory today seeking shelter in the relative safety of the self-rule region, as Britain’s top diplomat arrived in Baghdad to urge the country’s leaders to unite against the insurgent threat.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s trip follows a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier this week delivered a similar message and warned that Washington is prepared to take military action even if Baghdad delays political reforms.

The intense diplomatic push underscores the growing international concern over the gains by fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

Hague called the group a “mortal threat” to Iraq that also posed a threat to others in the region, according to a statement from his office. He was due to meet Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani and other political figures later today.

Britain has ruled out military intervention in Iraq, but Hague said it would provide “diplomatic, counter-terrorism and humanitarian support.”

Iraq's vice president today called on parliament to convene Tuesday, the first step toward forming a new government to present a united front against a rapidly advancing Sunni insurgency.

Khudeir al-Khuzaie issued a decree ordering the 328-member parliament to meet. Constitutionally the next step would be to elect a speaker and two deputies, then within 30 days to choose a new president who will ask the largest bloc to choose a prime minister and form the new government.

An insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq on Wednesday sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish enclave. The shelling of the cluster of villages happened in an area known as Hamdaniya, 45 miles from the frontier of the self-ruled Kurdish region.

While many villagers appeared to have been granted access by daybreak, hundreds of Shiite refugees were still hoping to be let in but were facing delays because they lacked sponsors on the other side.

Elsewhere, pro-government forces on Wednesday battled Sunni militants threatening a major military air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, military officials said.

The militants had advanced into the nearby town of Yathrib, just three miles from the former U.S. base known as Camp Anaconda. The officials insisted the base was not in immediate danger of falling into the hands of the militants.

American and Iraqi military officials on Wednesday confirmed that Syrian warplanes bombed Sunni militants’ positions inside Iraq, deepening the concerns that the extremist insurgency spanning the two neighboring countries could morph into an even wider regional conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned against the threat and said other nations should stay out.

Iraq’s other neighbors — Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were all bolstering flights just inside their airspace to monitor the situation, said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry said, speaking in Brussels at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations.

Meanwhile, two U.S. officials said Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq, controlling them from an airfield in Baghdad. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said they believe the drones are surveillance aircraft only, but they could not rule out that they may be armed.

A top Iraqi intelligence official said Iran was secretly supplying the Iraqi security forces with weapons, including rockets, heavy machine guns and multiple rocket launchers.

The involvement of Syria and Iran in Iraq suggests a growing cooperation among the three Shiite-led governments in response to the raging Sunni insurgency. And in an unusual twist, the U.S., Iran and Syria now find themselves with an overlapping interest in stabilizing Iraq’s government.

Non-Arab and mostly Shiite, Iran has been playing the role of guarantor of Shiites in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It has maintained close ties with successive Shiite-led governments since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shiites, and is also the main backer of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a follower of Shiism’s Alawite sect.

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