At least 15 killed in series of explosions in Baghdad

Fierce fighting spreads to northwestern Iraq as insurgents release photos of executions


The insurgent offensive that has threatened to dismember Iraq spread to the northwest of the country today, when Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a town close to the Syrian border, clashing with police and government forces.

As the rapid advance south by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) towards Baghdad appeared to slow over the weekend, fierce fighting erupted in the town of Tal Afar 60 km west of Mosul near the Syrian border, security sources and a local official said.

A string of explosions in Baghdad this evening has killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 30.

In the city centre, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 21. After nightfall, another explosion hit the area, killing two and wounding five.

The third went off near a falafel shop in the city’s sprawling Sadr City district, killing three and wounding seven.

Isis fighters and other Sunni Muslim armed groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad after seizing Mosul nearly a week ago - an offensive which only stalled as it approached the mainly Shia capital.

The advance alarmed both prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia supporters in Iran and officials in the United States, which helped bring him to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

US president Barack Obama said on Friday he was reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency, and Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime US arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.

Mr Maliki’s security forces and allied militias regained some territory yesterday, easing part of the pressure on his Shia-led government, and officials said they were regaining the initiative. Mr Maliki has vowed to rout the insurgents.

But today’s fighting in Tal Afar, a majority Turkomen town which is home to both Shias and Sunnis, showed how volatile the deepening sectarian divisions have become.

Residents in Sunni districts accused Shia police and army forces of launching mortar fire at their neighbourhoods, prompting Isis forces stationed outside the town to move in.

“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can‘t leave town,” a local official said. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”

Government forces are using helicopter gunships against Isis on the outskirts of Tal Afar, a member of Mr Maliki’s security committee told Reuters.

Over Mosul, an Iraqi military jet came under anti-aircraft fire from Isis fighters, witnesses said. It was not immediately clear whether it was preparing to attack Isis positions or was carrying out reconnaissance.

Baghdad bomb

In Baghdad earlier today, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the centre of the capital, police and medical sources said.

At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting centre in Khlais, 50 km north of Baghdad.

Volunteers were gathered by army to join fighting to regain control of the northern town of Udhaim from Isis militants.

They were some of the thousands who responded to a call by the country’s most influential Shia cleric to take up arms and defend the country against the hardline insurgents, many of whom consider Shia as heretics.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported Isis Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone on the ground.

Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds of army deserters who were captured as they tried to flee the fighting. They were shown being transported in the back of truck and led to an open field where they laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black Islamist Isis flag can be seen.

Most of the captured men were wearing civilian clothes, although one picture showed two men in military camouflage trousers, one of them half covered by a pair of ordinary trousers.

“This is the fate of the Shia which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads. Others showed Isis fighters apparently seizing facilities in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near Isis headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, activists said.

Raqqa, the first and only Syrian city to fall to insurgents since Syria’s conflict began more than three years ago, has been a major base for Isis since it evicted rival rebels including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate during infighting this year.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes targeted the governorate building, a large structure in the centre of town, as well as two other buildings, including a sharia, or Islamic law, court.

Images posted by Isis supporters online showed a hole surrounded by rubble in the pavement outside the governorate building, although the date and authenticity could not be verified. It was unclear if the building itself was damaged.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

While expressing support for Iraq’s government, the United States has stressed the need for a political solution to a crisis threatening to fracture the country less than three years after the US military withdrawal.

Secretary of state John Kerry told Iraq’s foreign minister in a call yesterday that US assistance would only succeed if Iraqi leaders set aside their differences and forged the national unity needed to confront the insurgent threat.

The United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf yesterday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on Baghdad.

Oil prices have risen to the highest level this year over fears of the violence disrupting exports from OPEC member Iraq.

Arab League secretary general Nabil Elaraby said Arab foreign ministers will discuss the “dangerous situation in Iraq“ at a meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah in the next two days.

In Cairo, a meeting of Arab League ambassadors condemned the “terrorist danger” facing Iraq but did not discuss military assistance.

Blair calls for military action

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair claimed today that the violent insurgency in Iraq is not the result of the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

In a renewed call for military action, Mr Blair said the crisis unfolding in the country was instead the “predictable” result of the West’s failure to intervene in Syria.

In an eight-page essay on his website, Mr Blair — now a Middle East peace envoy - rejected as “bizarre” arguments that Iraq would be more stable and peaceful today if the US-backed war, which claimed the lives of 179 UK personnel, had not happened.

He added Iraq was “in mortal danger”, pinning the blame on the sectarianism of the Nouri al-Maliki government and the spread of Syria’s brutal three-year civil war.

“The choices are all pretty ugly, it is true. But for three years we have watched Syria descend into the abyss and as it is going down, it is slowly but surely wrapping its cords around us, pulling us down with it,” he wrote.

He made clear it did not mean another invasion, insisting there were a whole myriad of responses between troops on the ground and doing nothing at all.

“I understand all the reasons following Afghanistan and Iraq why public opinion was so hostile to involvement,” Mr Blair continued.

“Action in Syria did not and need not be as in those military engagements. But every time we put off action, the action we will be forced to take will be ultimately greater.”