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 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. (Full Story)
Ships like the USS George H.W. Bush, which are equipped with sophisticated anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, are often used to launch airstrikes, conduct surveillance flights, do search, rescue, humanitarian and evacuation missions, and conduct seaborne security operations, a U.S. defense official said.
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 with the help of Shi’ite militia.
“We have regained the initiative and will not stop at liberating Mosul from ISIL terrorists, but all other parts,” said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief, pointing out areas the army had retaken on a map with a laser pen.
In the northeastern province of Diyala, at least seven members of the Kurdish security forces were killed in an airstrike, police said.
The secretary general of the Kurdish security forces said, however, that only two people had died near the town of Jalawla in what he described as shelling, 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 km (27 miles) north of Samarra, planted landmines and roadside bombs at the city’s entrances, apparently anticipating a counter-attack by government forces. Residents said the militants deployed across the city and moved anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery into position. Families began to flee north in the direction of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurdish forces occupied on Thursday after the Iraqi army fled.