U.S. reduces staff at embassy in Iraq as another city falls
The fall of the religiously mixed town of Tal Afar to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raised the specter of deepening sectarian violence. It came as the U.S. government announced that it was drawing down staff at its embassy in Baghdad.
This is the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that the embassy has decreased its staffing levels in response to a threat posed by violence, and the move was an indication of the level of concern that the unrest could reach even into the fortresslike Green Zone.
Citing the "ongoing instability and violence in certain areas," a State Department statement said the embassy will also increase the number of security personnel deployed at the heavily guarded mission. A separate Pentagon statement said "a small number" of Defense Department personnel were being sent to augment security at the facility.
Fears of sectarian killings have risen amid the mass rush to arms by thousands of Shiite civilians across Baghdad and the Shiite south in recent days, after senior clerics and the government issued an appeal to civilians to volunteer to fight to reinforce the security forces.
An ISIS claim that it had executed scores of men underscored the risk of sectarian slaughter. The group posted gruesome photos on a Twitter account showing men in civilian clothes lying facedown, shoulder to shoulder and with their hands bound, in a ditch in Salahuddin province, as masked fighters from ISIS fired at them.
A separate tweet earlier announced that 1,700 men had been executed, but it was impossible to verify the authenticity of the photos or the claim. By Sunday afternoon, Twitter appeared to have suspended the account.
A senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the United States needs to do more if Iraq is to be saved. Ali al-Musawi appealed to the Obama administration to commit air support and drone strikes to the fight against the militants; "otherwise there is a danger terrorism will win," he said.
The Obama administration has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf as it decides how to respond to a crisis that threatens the stability of not only Iraq, but also the entire Middle East.
Although there have been reports that Iran has dispatched members of its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps to help Iraq hold back the threat, the Maliki government prefers not to accept Iranian help because of the risk of inflaming sectarian sentiments, Musawi said.
He cited Iraq's Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States, which spells out a range of areas of mutual interest and cooperation, as the basis on which Iraq is hoping for U.S. military help.
"We have received a lot of offers of help, but we want support through legal channels and not in a way that would provoke sensitivities," he said, a reference to the widespread perception among Iraqis that Shiite Iran interferes in the country to advance the interests of Shiites.
At a news conference in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a military spokesman, said the government had reasserted control over much of Salahuddin province, and he showed a video of what he said were successful air strike on the town of Balad in the region. All together, 278 people have been killed by the air force in the last 24 hours, he said.
But the capture of Tal Afar, a town near the Syrian border with a large population of ethnic Turkmens, many of them Shiite, suggested that the ISIS onslaught was continuing.
Hundreds of families fled on foot because the roads were barricaded, and they were planning to spend the night in the desert nearby.