IRBIL, Iraq — The Sunni militant extremists who have seized a broad area of Iraq extended their control Monday to the country’s entire western frontier, having secured nearly all official border crossings with Syria and the only one with Jordan, giving them the semblance of the new independent state that they say they intend to create in the region.
With the seizure of the Jordan crossing, which militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, first assaulted late Sunday, the Iraqi military defenses crumpled, as they have in other battlegrounds in the western and northern parts of the country over the past two weeks. ISIS control of the Jordan border raised the risks that its insurgency could menace not just Syria and Iraq but Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two important US allies.
The border seizure came as Secretary of State John Kerry made an emergency visit to Baghdad for consultations with Iraqi leaders on the need to bridge the country’s deepening sectarian splits and form a new unity government that can halt the ISIS insurgency.
That is an enormous challenge, given the polarizing effects of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite whose autocratic tendencies have increasingly been a worry for US officials.
Even as Kerry was conferring with Iraqi political leaders, sectarian reprisal violence appeared to be worsening, with at least three instances of mass killings.
Shi’ite policemen were believed to have killed at least 69 Sunni insurgent prisoners on a highway, insurgents bombed the funerals of 15 Shi’ite civilians they had killed, and a Sunni family of six, including three children, was found shot to death in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad.
The ISIS advance on the border posts highlights the quick and strategic gains the militants have made against the Iraqi government’s security forces, which have shown little resistance and little willingness to retake them by force. But the advance also starkly symbolized the broader aim espoused by ISIS of erasing the border drawn by the colonial powers after World War I and establishing an Islamic state that stretches from the Mediterranean through the deserts of Iraq.
“Taking the border crossing with Jordan would mean to me that ISIS is messaging to Jordan and Saudi Arabia that it is a state now,” said Jessica D. Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, who has scrutinized the militant group’s advances in Iraq and Syria.
“I do not think that ISIS is necessarily going to move into Jordan or Saudi Arabia imminently,” she said, “but they are willing to force Jordan and Saudi Arabia to plan forward and treat ISIS as a state actor with military means.”
In recent days, the militants also seized two Iraqi posts on the Syrian border. There were unconfirmed reports late Monday that militants occupying one of the posts, Waleed, had scattered from Syrian government airstrikes.
But the other post, in Qaim, was under ISIS control and opened up an important supply line for the militants between the battlefields in both countries.
In the north, Iraqi Kurds, who have taken steps during the crisis to secure their own borders and perhaps advance their aspirations of independence, have secured another outpost, leaving the Iraqi government with no control of any crossing into Syria or Jordan.
On the frontier between Syria and Turkey, ISIS controls at least two border crossings.
As the Iraqi state, especially the military, seems to be weakening by the day, ISIS has been building the trappings of a new state, seizing assets that include armored vehicles, weapons, and money, fighting for control of Baiji, Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and now securing border outposts.
As the group has taken territory in the north, capturing control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, one of the battle lines has been set at Samarra, home to an important Shi’ite shrine.
US officials say ISIS has its sights set on destroying the shrine, which would likely lead to an explosion of sectarian violence, just as an attack there did in early 2006.
“Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important line,” Kerry said at a news conference Monday in Baghdad.