4 western Iraqi towns fall to advancing ISIS militants

The other three are Qaim, Rawah and Anah, as well as a border crossing with Syria
Baghdad: Iraqi officials say Sunni militants have seized another town in Iraq's western Anbar province, the fourth to fall in their hands since Friday, authorities said.
They said the militants captured Rutba, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of the Jordanian border, late Saturday. Residents were on Sunday negotiating with the militants to leave after an army unit on the town's outskirts threatened to start shelling.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Rutba is the fourth Anbar town to fall to fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni militants since Friday, dealing a serious blow to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The other three are Qaim, Rawah and Anah, as well as a border crossing with Syria.
Shiite fighters parade as militants take Iraq border town
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Volunteers of the newly formed "Peace Brigades" raise their weapons
and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant during a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City,
Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo: AP)
Shiite fighters paraded in Baghdad in a dramatic show of force aimed at Sunni militants who seized a Syrian border crossing, widening a western front in an offensive threatening to rip Iraq apart.
Meanwhile, Washington readied a new diplomatic bid to unite Iraq's fractious leaders and repel insurgents whose lightning offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands, alarmed the world and put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki under growing pressure.
And in a sign the broad alliance of jihadists and anti-government elements behind the assault may be fracturing, internecine clashes killed 17 fighters in northern Iraq.
Security forces announced they were holding their own in several areas north of Baghdad, but officials said insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group seized one of three official border crossings with Syria.
The takeover came a day after 34 members of the security forces were killed in the border town, giving the fighters greater cross-border mobility into conflict-hit Syria.
The seizure of Al-Qaim leaves just one of three official border crossings with Syria in the hands of the central government. The third is controlled by Kurdish forces.
Anti-government fighters already hold parts of the western province of Anbar, which abuts the Syrian border, after taking all of one city and parts of another earlier in the year.
It is unclear what impact the latest move will have on the overall offensive, as militants already have free rein along most of the 600-kilometre (375-mile) border, neither side of which is controlled by government forces.
- Internecine clashes -
Members of an Iraqi youth theater group perform part of their play
"Broken Dreams" on Pennsylvania Ave., outside the White House in
Washington, on Saturday. (Photo: AP)
ISIL aims to create an Islamic state that will incorporate both Iraq and Syria, where the group has become a major force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Seventeen fighters were killed in Friday clashes between ISIL and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandiyah Order (JRTN), another Sunni insurgent group, in militant-held territory in northern Kirkuk province.
The Sunni insurgents driving the offensive are made up of a broad alliance of other groups, such as loyalists of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Analysts say it is unclear if the alliance can survive given its disparate ideologies.
The battle for the strategic northern town of Tal Afar was in its seventh day, Maliki's security spokesman said Saturday, with government forces holding some neighbourhoods.
Northeast of Baghdad, shelling targeting militant-held villages near the town of Muqdadiyah killed six civilians, police and a doctor said.
In Baghdad, thousands of armed fighters loyal to powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr paraded in the Sadr City district, vowing to fight the offensive which began on June 9.
Rank upon rank of fighters, wearing mostly camouflage but with some in black, carried Kalashnikov assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, light machineguns and rocket launchers.
Some carried Iraqi flags, while others held signs with messages including "We sacrifice for you, O Iraq," "No, no to terrorism," and "No, no to America".
Fighters interviewed by AFP stressed they were not against any specific religious sect, and that their aim was to defend Iraq.
- Kerry's diplomatic push -
Secretary of State John Kerry. (Photo: AP)
Similar parades were held in large southern cities in the Shiite heartland.
The parades and clashes came as US President Barack Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe and the Middle East in a new push for unity among Iraq's fractious political leadership.
While Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq, it is not known when he will do so.
Obama's refusal so far to agree to Iraq's appeal for air strikes on the ISIL-led militants has prompted Baghdad's powerful Shiite neighbour Iran to claim Washington lacks the will to fight terror.
Washington says Iran has sent a "small number" of operatives into Iraq.
Obama told CNN on Friday: "There's no amount of American fire power that's going to be able to hold the country together."
The president has insisted that Washington is not slipping back into the morass, but has offered up to 300 advisers and left open the possibility of "targeted and precise military action".
Washington already has an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and is flying manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq, while senior US officials say special forces being sent to advise Iraq could call in air strikes if necessary.
The US's push for broader leadership came after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered cleric among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, called on people to band together against the insurgents before it was too late.
UN aid agencies said they were rushing supplies to Iraq to help more than one million people displaced by the latest violence and unrest earlier this year.
Turkey, meanwhile, said it will provide fuel to Iraq's Kurdistan region to make up for a shortage caused by the militant offensive that has closed Iraq's biggest oil refinery at Baiji.
US, Iran, longtime enemies, now potential partners
Iraqi women living in Iran join a demonstration against Sunni militants
of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL,
and to support the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric,
shown in the posters, in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: AP)
For years, Iran has been an archenemy of the United States. Now, with alliances blurred in the Mideast, the two countries are talking about how to stop an offensive in Iraq by al-Qaida-inspired insurgents.
How is it that adversaries that haven't trusted each other for 35 years could cooperate on Iraq today?
They are strange bedfellows, to say the least.
In the Syrian civil war, the U.S. backs the opposition. Iran supports Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. for three decades has considered Iran a "state sponsor of terrorism." The U.S. says Iran bankrolls anti-Israel terrorist groups and other extremists intent on destabilizing the Middle East.
The U.S. has threatened Iran with military action if Tehran approaches the capacity to develop nuclear weapons.
But despite all the differences, the U.S. and Iran are more engaged diplomatically at this moment than in years.
After a breakthrough interim agreement last year, the U.S., Iran and other nations are hoping to wrap up a deal within the next month that would curb Iran's nuclear program. Progress on nuclear talks is leading American officials to explore whether Iran can be a useful partner on interests long viewed as shared, such as fighting Sunni extremism and ensuring the stability of Iraq.
Iran, like the Iraqi government, is Shiite. The insurgent group leading the assault in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is Sunni.
But there is worry that Iran is trying to leverage its helpfulness on Iraq into better terms in the nuclear negotiations.
"I would be skeptical that cooperating with Iran - particularly sharing sensitive intelligence information - would be in our overall interest," Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, told The Associated Press.
"In fact, it's hard for me to conceive of any level of Iranian cooperation that doesn't lead to future demands for concessions on the nuclear program, or foment the return of Shia militias and terrorist groups, which is harmful to resolving the sectarian disputes within Iraq," said McConnell. "Remember, the Iranians are working aggressively to keep Assad in power in Syria."
His concern was highlighted by the comments this past week by Mohammad Nahavandian, chief of staff to Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. The aide suggested nuclear talks and Iraq's crisis were connected. The State Department rejected any linkage.
Secretary of State John Kerry, heading to the Mideast this weekend to discuss Iraq's stability, has fueled talk about U.S.-Iranian cooperation. He said early last week that the Obama administration was open to discussions with Tehran if the Iranians help end the violence in Iraq and restore confidence in the Baghdad government.
American and Iranian diplomats talked about Iraq on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna in recent days. U.S. officials have rejected military cooperation with Iran and thus far, legislative aides said, the understanding in Congress is that no intelligence-sharing mechanism with Tehran has been finalized.
But the comments had officials and lawmakers in Washington and the Middle East abuzz.
At a breakfast this past week with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry steered away from questions about how specifically the U.S. might cooperate with Tehran, according to aides, who weren't authorized to speak about private meetings and demanded anonymity.
They said the administration has given no impression it will provide anything to Iran revealing intelligence sources or methods. So far, the State Department is not reporting any other recent meetings between the U.S. and Iran beyond the one in Vienna.
There are reasons both might be interested in continuing the dialogue.
Iraqi displaced children gather in a room of a relative's house after
they fled with their parents from the Shiite village of Basheer, in the
mostly Kurdish northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq,
on Saturday. (Photo: AP)
Iran, as a Shiite powerhouse, has considerable influence over Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who spent years in exile from Saddam Hussein's regime in Iran.
Iran also is threated by the Sunni extremists who have taken over Syrian and Iraqi territory and are pressing toward Baghdad. Iran has called ISIL "barbaric."
But the U.S. doesn't want to simply side with al-Maliki for fear of seeming to favor Shiite over Sunni.
President Barack Obama stressed the need for an inclusive government in Iraq, and several lawmakers have called for the Iraqi leader al -Maliki to step down.
Obama said Thursday that Iran could play a "constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we're sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it's inclusive and that the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected."
If Iran comes to prop up Shiite domination, he said, "that probably worsens the situation."
A Shiite fighter clashes with members of the Sunni-dominated
Free Syrian Army rebel group in the town of Hatita. (Photo: AP)
The two countries have cooperated before, notably when Washington twice invaded Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They've also collaborated on combating drug flows.
James Dobbins, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says perhaps the most constructive period of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy since the fall of the shah in 1979 occurred right after the Sept. 11 attacks. Then, the U.S. worked with Iran on forming a post-Taliban Afghan government.
Relations soured when President George W. Bush lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil," brushing aside Iranian offers to help train a new Afghan army and the possibility of more extensive cooperation in Iraq.
In 2007, Ryan Crocker, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq, met his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad in a bid to calm Iraq's violence. The process quickly bogged down, but U.S. intelligence believed Iran reduced its support for Shiite militias targeting U.S. troops following the contacts.
Said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council: "With the region roiling as it is, the reality that Iran and the United States might end up on the same side is simply the new normal."
Watch Video: Iraq, six questions you need to know, courtesy CNN

( Source : AP )
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