- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Sunni extremist militants rampaging through northern Iraq faced fierce gunbattles against forces aligned with Iraq’s Shiite prime minister roughly 40 miles northeast of Baghdad on Tuesday, as evidence emerged of mounting sectarian and reprisal violence between the nation’s divided Muslim populations.

Iraqi police confirmed that pro-government Shiite militiamen killed nearly four dozen Sunni detainees at a prison in Baquba after Sunni fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attempted to storm the facility.

The slaughter occurred just days after ISIL fighters circulated a grisly series of photos on social media accounts, including Twitter, claiming to show the executions of hundreds of Shiite soldiers taken captive from the Iraqi military. The bodies then were dumped into shallow graves.

Fears of a return to the sectarian civil war that tore through Iraq in 2006 at the height of the U.S. military occupation also seemed to be rising in Baghdad, where the bullet-riddled bodies of four men in their early 30s — presumably Sunnis — turned up on the streets of a Shiite militia-controlled neighborhood.

A car bomb exploded at a crowded outdoor market in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City district, killing 12 people and wounding 30, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Although no one claimed responsibility, the report said, attacks targeting Shiite districts are routinely the work of Sunni militants.

SEE ALSO: Say no to Iran helping in Iraq, Sen. Menendez pleads with White House

With those developments as a backdrop, the Obama administration reiterated its calls for calm between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites and said a top American diplomat had met privately with Iranian officials in Vienna to urge Iran’s Shiite neighbor to embrace a similar posture.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Iranian officials “on the margins” of ongoing multiparty talks related to Iran’s disputed nuclear program. “They discussed the need to support inclusivity in Iraq and the need to refrain from pressing a sectarian agenda,” she said.

Regional analysts say Iran wields deep influence over Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, but a recent State Department counterterrorism report suggests that Tehran is fomenting unrest in the region and supporting Shiite militants in Iraq, and the Obama administration’s sudden outreach to the Islamic republic has caught some observers off guard.

U.S. officials had worked to rescind an invitation for Iran to an international peace conference in January aimed at resolving hostilities in Syria, Iraq’s neighbor to the northeast, where ISIL and Iranian proxy militants have battled on opposite sides of that country’s civil war.

Mixed signals

Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested Monday that military-to-military coordination between Washington and Tehran on Iraq was under consideration, but Ms. Psaki and others in the administration downplayed that message.

Ms. Psaki stressed Tuesday that military-to-military coordination between Tehran and Washington is not being considered and that, aside from the Burns meeting in Vienna, the diplomatic path ahead with Iran “is yet to be determined.”

“It’s not the launch of a formal process or anything along those lines ,” she said. “We’re open to continuing our engagement with the Iranians, just as we are engaging with other regional players on the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq.”

Despite the administration’s posturing, the message from Tehran has appeared notably more hostile.

Iran’s state-run Fars News Agency quoted Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, on Tuesday as saying the U.S. is the one that supports terrorists in the region and is plotting an armed intervention in Iraq.

“By any meddling and military intervention in Iraq, the Americans are seeking to attain ungracious goals, at the top of which undermining the elections in Iraq,” Mr. Firouzabadi said. “The crocodile tears of the Americans should not receive any attention, as they are still the allies of the sponsors and supporters of terrorists in the region.”

Speculation has surged in Washington over the extent to which the White House may green-light some form of U.S. military action in response to the wave of violence gripping Iraq.

Some regional analysts cautioned Tuesday that a wrong move by Washington could trigger a much wider regional conflict in the Middle East.

“Any solutions in Iraq need to consider the diplomatic and military strategies of Iraq’s neighbors first and foremost, and they must reflect a U.S. willingness to inflict pain — overtly and covertly — on the various antagonists,” Jon B. Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis posted on the center’s website.

“The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives to give Iraq a chance at democracy, but the pivotal moment in Iraq’s democratic transition is not now,” Mr. Alterman wrote. “Instead, this is the moment when Iraq may tip the region into crisis. The moment calls for tough-minded diplomacy, with friends and enemies alike. This is a regional problem, not merely an Iraqi one.”

But Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., warned on CNN that the Sunni extremists surging in Iraq could produce more global terrorists. “What you have in Afghanistan, with one bin Laden — you will have a thousand of them. That’s the situation in Iraq,” he said.

The fighting north of Baghdad erupted Tuesday amid reports that Sunni extremists with ISIL were scrambling to drive to Syria a cache of aging American military vehicles — including tanks and Humvees — that the extremists claim to have seized from fleeing Iraqi military troops in the city of Mosul last week.

Pentagon officials said they could not confirm the reports, but other security and intelligence sources noted that ISIL views Iraq and Syria as one interchangeable battlefield and it would not be surprising if the group attempted to reposition U.S. hardware seized in Mosul.

However, the sources resisted claims that ISIL fighters had captured advanced American weaponry such as Black Hawk helicopters, tanks and shoulder-fired Stinger missiles from fleeing Iraqi forces. One source said the U.S. provided no such missiles to Iraqi military forces, and another said there was no reliable evidence that ISIL had captured any American tanks in Mosul.

ISIL leaders vow to bring their assault to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since U.S. combat forces withdrew in 2011.

The Obama administration has responded this week by positioning nearly 300 armed forces in various spots in Iraq to help secure the U.S. Embassy and other assets. Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is heavily invested in projects in southern Iraq, a predominantly Shiite region that so far has remained far from recent fighting.

The Pentagon also has repositioned warships near Iraq and increased surveillance drone flights over the country.

Although Iraq’s U.S.-trained military forces reportedly laid down their arms last week in the face of ISIL’s advance in the nation’s north, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday that U.S. military officials now believe pro-government forces have “the will” to defend Baghdad.

“We’re seeing indications that Iraqi security forces in and around Baghdad are stiffening themselves, that they are assisted by [Shiite] militia members and it appears as if they have the will to defend the capital,” he said.

About 160 security assistance troops were instructed to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and roughly 100 military troops have been stationed at a nearby forward base, according to Adm. Kirby.

Maggie Ybarra contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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