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Sunni militants capture key Iraqi border posts

Army’s move to withdraw called ‘tactical decision’

An Iraqi Shi’ite tribal fighter takes a position outside the city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Jaber al-Helo/Associated Press

An Iraqi Shi’ite tribal fighter takes a position outside the city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD — Sunni militants gained control of two Iraqi posts on the Syrian and Jordanian borders, along with several nearby towns in Anbar province, the Iraqi government said Sunday.

The Baghdad government tried to cast a positive light on what it and Western officials described as a worrisome development by saying Iraqi troops had made a “tactical decision” to withdraw from the locations.

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Iraqi officials said the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over the Turaibil crossing with Jordan and the al-Walid crossing with Syria after government forces pulled out, the AP reported.

The capture of the two crossings follows the fall on Friday and Saturday of the towns of Qaim, Rawah, Anah, and Rutba. They are all in the Sunni-dominated Anbar, where the militants have since January controlled the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi.

The Iraqi prime minister’s top military spokesman, General Qassim Atta, said in his briefing Sunday that although Iraqi army troops had left several towns, they were carrying on the battle elsewhere.

Local officials in Rutba said ISIS militants had driven in late Saturday, burned the police station, and occupied the town.

“Around 50 vehicles full of militants and weapons came from Houran valley and after sporadic clashes with police they took control over the central town,” said Ratif al-Ubaid, of the Rutba local council. “Then they left a group of them to secure the town and then headed toward the border.”

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Rutba is on the main highway from Baghdad to the two border crossings and the capture has effectively cut the Iraqi capital’s main land route to Jordan. It is a key artery for passengers and goods and has been infrequently used in recent months because of deteriorating security. Police fled Sunday from the last post at the Syrian border that had remained in the army’s hands, at al-Walid, allowing militants to enter.

Officers scattered when the militants arrived in trucks. Some went to the Syrian side of the border, if they had family there, and others stayed on the Iraqi side, a police source said.

The militants seem intent on methodically consolidating their hold on the large Sunni provinces to the west and north, as the Iraqi army focuses on securing Baghdad, the capital. The militants already have considerable strength in Anbar province, but it has been mainly in remote villages and towns, with the exception of Fallujah.

Now, with the taking of the border posts and nearby towns, they will be able to move on the road that leads to the city of Haditha, where there is a major dam.

On Sunday the government was reinforcing its troops there, anxious to secure the dam. Iraqi military officials said more than 2,000 troops were dispatched to the dam, the AP reported.

The quick advance by ISIS in the western desert moves the Al Qaeda-breakaway group closer to its goal of creating an Islamic state straddling Syria and Iraq. In the meantime, controlling the borders with Syria will help it supply fellow fighters in that country with weapons taken from Iraq.

During the Qaim battle, it appeared that 70 volunteers who had left Baghdad to join the fighting on the side of the Iraqi army were killed in an ambush. They were traveling in food freezer trucks to camouflage their arrival, but a police source said the militants appeared to have discovered this.

It was not clear how many Iraqi army soldiers had been killed in the fight but there were many and they fought hard, according to the police.

On Sunday, twin blasts by a suicide bomber and a car bomb targeted a funeral for a senior army officer in Anbar province, killing eight and injuring 13, police and hospital officials said. The attack near Ramadi hit the funeral of Brigadier General Abdul-Majid al-Fahdawi, who was killed by a mortar shell in Qaim on Friday.

In Diyala province, the struggle for power between the Sunni militants from ISIS and local Sunnis, some of them former military officers under Saddam Hussein, continued on Sunday.

ISIS fighters killed three brothers of one of the leaders of the Islamic army and destroyed houses of fighters in that group as well as of the Men of Naqshbandia, former Hussein loyalists or Ba’athists.

The Shi’ite-dominated government of President Nouri al-Maliki has struggled to halt the advance of the Sunni militants. Iraq has requested US airstrikes to help halt the advance, but President Obama has instead called on Iraqi leaders to form a more representative government, in thinly-veiled criticism of Maliki.

Iraqi security forces and volunteers rallied on the outskirts of a  town in Diyala province on Sunday.

REUTERS

Iraqi security forces and volunteers rallied on the outskirts of a town in Diyala province on Sunday.

Obama also is deploying up to 300 military advisers to join some 275 troops in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the US Embassy and other American interests.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say over Iranian state policy, said Sunday that he was opposed to any US intervention in Iraq. ‘‘The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the US camp and those who seek an independent Iraq,’’ Khamenei was quoted as saying by the IRNA state news agency, in his first reaction to the crisis. ‘‘The US aims to bring its own blind followers to power.’’

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