KHAZNA, IRAQ - Sunni fighters have seized an Iraqi town that borders Syria, allowing the militants to pass freely along with their weapons between the two countries, security officials said Saturday.
Fighters with the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), took the border town of Qaim overnight after a day of heavy fighting on Friday. The Associated Press quoted officials speaking on the condition of anonymity saying people are now crossing back and forth freely.
Insurgents also took control Saturday of Rawah. The fall of Qaim and Rawah solidifies the rebel control of the western Anbar province.
The border breach could result in yet more fighters and weaponry flooding into Iraq, as the militants expand their battlefields and pose a growing threat to the capital, Baghdad.
The advance by ISIL militants began early last week with the takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. With the militants comprised mainly of Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, near Mosul and elsewhere are girding themselves to fight back.
In the town of Khazna, about 13 miles from Mosul, residents said they were fearful amid jihadists claims that they have killed 1,500 Shi’ites since taking control of Mosul on June 12.
One man who gave his name as only Mahmoud said fighters, whom locals refer to as the Da’esh, have established a checkpoint just a 10 minute drive from Khazna, a village of around 10,000.
Mahmoud say he and many others in Khazna were angered not only by the murders, but also by the perception that Sunni military officers and Iraqi army soldiers allowed ISIL fighters take Mosul without a fight.
Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga have moved from the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Shia and Christian villages near Mosul. The Kurds and Iraqi government have long disputed ownership of land to the east of Mosul.
Many Shia families are among the 300,000 Iraqis estimated to have fled Mosul. Abdullah, a former Iraqi army soldier who escaped along with his family to Khazna, said he ventured back to Mosul four days ago to retrieve some possessions from his home but was seized by Da’esh fighters.
He was only released thanks to the intervention of his former army commander, who has joined the jihadists, he said.
In Khazna, residents said they welcome the call to arms made by the powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi army fought the U.S. in Iraq for years.
On Saturday, fighters loyal to al-Sadr mounted a show of strength in a parade featuring missiles and artillery pieces and stretching for several miles through the Sadr City section of Baghdad. Armed men marched past loudspeakers proclaiming how they would defend Iraq from the Sunni militants who are creeping closer to the Iraqi capital.
In Khazna, watching television footage of the march in Baghdad, residents say they will join the fight, but also warn that neither the United States nor even Shi’ite Iran should directly intervene.
If America or Iran were serious about wanting to help, Mahmoud says, they should equip the Shi’ite in northern Iraq with weapons.
Calls for new government
On Friday, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric called for a new, "effective" government that avoids "past mistakes," adding to the pressure on the country's Shi'ite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The remarks by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani come after U.S. President Barack Obama called on Maliki to create an agenda "inclusive" of Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities or risk civil war.
Maliki is facing fierce opposition from his rivals as he tries to retain the prime minister post after his State of Law bloc won the most seats in parliament in the April 30 elections. The newly-elected parliament must meet by June 30 to elect a speaker and a new president, who will then ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government.
U.S. officials would not comment directly on Sistani's statement, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said a successful Iraqi government would be one that governs in an "inclusive fashion."
The Maliki government, meanwhile, has asked the U.S. for airstrikes to counter the militants.
Obama said Thursday he was ready to take what he called targeted military action. He also said he was prepared to send more equipment and up to 300 military advisers to help train, advise and support Iraqi forces in the fight, but he ruled out sending U.S. ground forces back.
Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to head to the Middle East and Europe next week to consult with partner countries on Iraq. Kerry will travel to Jordan before heading to Brussels for the NATO foreign ministers' meeting and then to Paris for meetings with regional partners and Gulf allies.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters Friday the first teams of advisers being sent to Iraq comprise personnel who are already in Baghdad. He said the U.S. is seeking from the Iraqi government on legal protections for the teams.
The U.N. Refugee Agency announced Friday that conflict has displaced 1 million people since the beginning of the year.
Iraqi troops and Sunni militants have been locked in fighting since Tuesday for control of the country's biggest oil refinery. Reports had said each side held a portion of the Beiji refinery, about 150 miles north of Baghdad.
The U.S. State Department said ISIL fighters also control what used to be a chemical weapons production facility under the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The advance by ISIL began early last week with the militants' takeover of the city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest.