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FIGHTING NEARS BAGHDAD; U.S. FORCES IN TO SECURE ASSETS UN warns Iraq risks disintegration

BAGHDAD, June 17, (Agencies): Fighting erupted at the northern approaches to Baghdad Tuesday as Iraq accused Saudi Arabia of backing militants who have seized swathes of territory in an offensive the UN says threatens its very existence. Washington deployed some 275 military personnel to protect its embassy in Baghdad, the first time it has sent troops to Iraq since it withdrew its forces at the end of 2011 after a bloody and costly intervention launched in 2003.

It was also mulling air strikes against the militants, who are led by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also include loyalists of now-executed Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein. Since the insurgents launched their lightning assault on June 9, they have captured Mosul, a city of two million people, and a big chunk of mainly Sunni Arab territory stretching south towards the capital.

The offensive has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and sent jitters through world oil markets as the militants have advanced ever nearer Baghdad leaving the Shiite-led government in disarray. Officials said on Tuesday that militants briefly held parts of the city of Baquba, just 60 kms (40 miles) from the capital. They also took control of most of Tal Afar, a strategic Shiite-majority town between Mosul and the border with Syria, where ISIL also has fighters engaged in that country’s three-year-old civil war. The overnight attack on Baquba, which was pushed back by security forces but left 44 prisoners dead at a police station, marked the closest that fighting has come to the capital. In Tal Afar, militants controlled most of the town but pockets of resistance remained. Soldiers, police and armed residents held on to parts of its airport, the deputy head of the provincial council, Nureddin Qabalan, said. Further south, security personnel abandoned the Iraqi side of a key crossing on the border with Syria, officers said. Syrian rebel groups opposed to ISIL, who already controlled the other side of the Al-Qaim crossing, advanced across the border to take over. The Iraqi army abandoned the Rabia border crossing further north to Kurdish forces last week.

Control
In ethnically mixed Kirkuk province, militants took control of Multaqa village, but were repelled by security forces in Bashir village. The swift advance of the militants has sparked international alarm, with UN envoy to Baghdad Nickolay Mladenov warning that Iraq’s territorial integrity was at stake. “Right now, it’s life-threatening for Iraq but it poses a serious danger to the region,” Mladenov told AFP. “Iraq faces the biggest threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity” in years. The violence has stoked regional tensions, with Iraq accusing neighbouring Saudi Arabia on Tuesday of “siding with terrorism” and of being responsible for financing the militants.

The comments came a day after the Sunni kingdom blamed “sectarian” policies by Iraq’s Shiite-led government for triggering the unrest. The prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region told the BBC it would be “almost impossible” for the country to return to how it was before the offensive, and called for Sunni Arabs to be granted an autonomous region of their own. Alarmed by the collapse of much of the security forces in the face of the militant advance, foreign governments have begun pulling out diplomatic staff. Nearly 300 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets as President Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating fastmoving Islamic insurgents, including airstrikes or a contingent of special forces. The US and Iran also held an initial discussion on how the longtime foes might cooperate to ease the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants that have swept through Iraq. Still, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.

Options
Obama met with his national security team Monday evening to discuss options for stopping the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Officials said the president has made no final decisions on how aggressively the US might get involved in Iraq, though the White House continued to emphasize that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms. Still, there were unmistakable signs of Americans returning to a country from which the US military fully withdrew more than two years ago. Obama notified Congress that up to 275 troops would be sent to Iraq to provide support and security for US personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad. The soldiers - 170 of which have already arrived in Iraq - were armed for combat, though Obama has insisted he does not intend for US forces to be engaged in direct fighting. “We are hard-wired into their system,” the fledgling democracy that America helped institute, said Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Baghdad. “We can’t walk away from it.” About 100 additional forces are being put on standby, most likely in Kuwait, and could be used for airfield management, security and logistics support, officials said. Separately, three US officials said the White House was considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers to Iraq. Their limited mission - which has not yet been approved -would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation’s north and west as the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011. Taken together, the developments suggest a willingness by Obama to send Americans into a collapsing security situation in order to quell the brutal fighting in Iraq before it morphs into outright war. If the US were to deploy an additional team of special forces, the mission almost certainly would be small. One US official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorized only as an advising and training mission - meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but would not officially be considered combat troops.

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