BAGHDAD — An offensive by insurgents that threatens to dismember Iraq seemed to slow on Saturday after days of lightning advances as government forces regained some territory in counter-attacks, easing pressure on the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
As Iraqi officials spoke of wresting back the initiative against Sunni militants, neighboring Shi’ite Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that he was reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency. The United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf on Saturday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on Baghdad.
Thousands of Iraqis responded to a call by the country’s most influential Shi’ite cleric to take up arms and defend the country against the insurgency, led by the Sunni militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
In a visit to the city of Samarra, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to rout the insurgents, whose onslaught has put the future of Iraq as a unitary state in question and raised the specter of sectarian conflict.
The militant gains have alarmed Maliki’s Shi’ite supporters in both Iran and the United States, which helped bring him to power after invading the country and toppling former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Oil prices have jumped over fears of ISIL disrupting exports from OPEC member Iraq.
But having encountered little resistance in majority Sunni areas, the militants have now come up against the army, which clawed back some towns and territory around Samarra on Saturday wit hthe help of Shi’ite militia.
Major-Generlal Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief, pointing out areas the amry has retaken on a map with a laser pen:
“We have regained the initiative and will not stop at liberating Mosul from ISIL terrorists, but all other parts.”
In the northeastern province of Diyala, at least seven members of the Kurdish security forces were killed in an airstrike, according to police.
Only two people died near the town of Jalawla in what he described as shelling, according ot the security general of the Kurdish security forces, and that it was not yet clear whether Iraqi forces or militants were responsible.
The incident and divergent accounts show the potential for security in Iraq to deteriorate further, given the deployment of several heavily armed factions and shifting areas of control.
Militants in control of Tikrit, 45 kilometers (27 miles) north of Samarra, planted landmines and roadside bombs at the city’s entrances, apparently anticipating a counter-attack by government forces.The militants deployed across the city and moved anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery into position, according to residents.Families began to flee north towards Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurdish forces occupied on Thursday after the Iraqi army fled.
Iraqi Army Counterattacks
The army reassered control over the small town of Ishaqi, southeast of Samarra, to secure a road that links the city of Baghdad and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul further north.
Masked jihadists under the black flag of ISIL aim to revive a medieval caliphate that would span a fragmenting Iraq and Syria, redrawing borders set by European colonial powers a century ago and menacing neighbors like Iran and Turkey.
Obama cautioned on Friday that any U.S. intervention must be accompanied by an Iraqi government effort to bridge divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
Obama called national security adviser Susan Rice Friday night and on Saturday morning to receive updates on the situation in Iraq, according to the White House.
White Houe spokesman Josh Earnest to reporters:
“The president directed her to continue to keep him appraised of the latest developments, as his national security team continues to meet through the weekend to review potential options.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Saturday and expressed support for Iraq in its fight against insurgents, according to a statement by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. Kerry pledged $12 million and stressed that Iraq should assure its neighbors that the war is not sectarian, but against the insurgents, according to the statement.
Iranian Presidnet Hassan Rouhani, after being asked at a televised news conference whether Tehran coud work with the United States to tackle ISIL:
“We can think about it if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.
“We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”
Any initiative would follow a clear pattern of Iranian overtures since the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets, which led to quiet U.S.-Iranian collaboration in the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and formation of a successor government.
The United States and Iran, adversaries since Iran’s 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, have long accused each other of meddling in the Gulf and beyond, and have not cooperated on regional security issues for more than a decade.
Maliki: Beginning of End for Militants
Maliki traveled on Friday to Samarra, one of the cities targeted — although not seized — by ISIL fighters who now prevail in a string of Sunni cities and towns running south from Mosul.
Maliki to military officers after Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric urged people to take up arms and defend the country against the insurgents:
“Samarra will not be the last line of defense, but a gathering point and launchpad.
“Within the coming hours, all the volunteers will arrive to support the security forces in their war against the gangs of ISIL. This is the beginning of the end of them.”
The Cabinet granted him unlimited powers to confront insurgents, according to Maliki. Last week, parliament failed to converse for a vote on declaring a state of emergency due to a boycott by most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers.
In Basra, Iraq’s main city in the mainly Shi’ite far south, hundreds volunteered to join the battle against ISIL, heeding a call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who commands unswerving loyalty for most Iraqi Shi’ites.
The volunteers, of all ages, were due to be given weapons and sent to a security center in Basra later on Saturday ready to be transferred further north.
63-year-old Kadhem Jassim:
“We the people of Basra obeyed our instructions to defend our country from south to north.”
Iran’s Rouhani would review any request any request for help submitted by Maliki, although none had been received yet.
“We are ready to help in the framework of international regulations and laws.”