Sunni allies in violent Kirkuk clashes as tensions mount
Isis seeking to create Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr parade through the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk today. Photograph: Ako Rasheed/PA
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a parade in Najaf, Iraq. Photograph: Ahmad Mousa/Reuters
In a sign of a split in the coalition of Sunni Muslim forces supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the militants clashed with an Iraqi Baathist faction allied with them today.
The clashes took place in western Kirkuk and the nearby town of Hawija, a longtime stronghold of the Men of the Army of Naqshabandi, a group formed by former army officers from the Saddam Hussein regime who joined Isis in its drive through Iraq.
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with official policy, said militants from the two factions fought one another last night after Isis tried to disarm the Naqshabandi.
However, a witness in Hawija said the two factions fought over control of oil tanker trucks brought by the Sunni militants from the refinery at Baiji, which they have been attacking for nearly a week.
The security official said eight Naqshabandi militants and nine Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants were killed.
The Naqshabandi group was formed under the leadership of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam Hussein’s few top commanders to escape capture by the US military.
The group includes Baathist party members and former military officers, and has a Sufi, nationalist philosophy that is at odds with the Isis ideology. The group was active in demonstrations in Hawija, one of its strongholds, last year that ended with at least 42 people killed when the Iraqi army tried to disperse protesters.
Except for Sunni neighborhoods of western Kirkuk, the city has been under the control of Kurdish peshmerga militiamen after the Iraqi army in the area collapsed.
The official Iraqi military spokesman, Gen Qassim Atta again claimed that Iraqi forces had regained the initiative. In a briefing for reporters, he said fighting was ongoing in al-Qaim, an important border crossing with Syria in western Anbar province that apparently fell under Isis control yesterday.
“We will not let them take any foot of our earth,” the general said. “We are the ones who are making the attacks.”
He said the militants had been particularly hard hit by Iraqi airstrikes. “You should see how those Isis run away when they hear even the sound of our air force,” he said.
Gen Atta played video from a gun camera that showed helicopter gunship bombing runs on groups of men who he said were Isis fighters and who were running in the streets of Tal Afar, a city west of Mosul in the north.
Tal Afar was also reported to have fallen to the insurgents last week, but Iraqi forces were battling to retake it, and local reports were that it was still being contested.
In a separate development, Russian president Vladimir Putin called Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to offer Russia’s “full support for the Iraqi government’s efforts to liberate Iraqi territory from the terrorists’ hands as quickly as possible,” according to a statement issued today by the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Sunni fighters seized a border post on the Iraq-Syria frontier today, smashing a line drawn in 1932 by colonial powers and linking hundreds of kilometres of land they control to create an Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran.
With stunning speed, Isis, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has captured swathes of territory in northwest and central Iraq, including the second city, Mosul. They have seized large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army and looted banks.
The fighting has divided Iraq along sectarian lines. The Kurds have expanded their zone in the northeast to include the oil city of Kirkuk, which they regard as part of Kurdistan, while Sunnis have taken ground in the west.
The Shia-led government has mobilised militia to send volunteers to the front lines.
US president Barack Obama has offered up to 300 US special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory seized by Isis and other Sunni armed groups across northern and western Iraq.
But he has held off granting a request for air strikes to protect the government and renewed a call for Mr Maliki, to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the Sunni minority.
In Baghdad’s Shia slum of Sadr City, thousands of fighters wearing military fatigues marched through the streets. They carried rocket-propelled grenades, semi-automatic rifles and trucks had mounted long-range rockets, including the new 3-metre “Muqtada 1” missile, named after Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has tens of thousands of followers.
Sadr has yet to throw his fighters into the recent wave of fighting but has criticised the Maliki government for mishandling the crisis.
“These brigades are sending a message of peace. They are the brigades of peace. They are ready to sacrifice their souls and blood for the sake of defending Iraq and its generous people,” a man on a podium said as the troops marched by.
New York Times/Reuters