Sunni militants advanced through west Iraq after seizing a strategic Syria border crossing, as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the region on Sunday, aiming to bridge widening rifts.
The latest assaults saw the security forces making “tactical” withdrawals in the face of an insurgent onslaught that has displaced hundreds of thousands and alarmed the world amid fears Iraq could tear itself apart.
The government said its forces had made a “tactical” withdrawal from the towns, control of which has allowed the militants to open up a strategic route to neighbouring Syria, where they also control swathes of countryside along the Euphrates river valley.
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.
Washington wants Arab states to bring pressure on Iraq’s leaders to speed up government formation, which has made little headway since elections in April.
While American leaders have stopped short of calling for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down — arguing that it is up to the Iraqis to choose their own leaders — they have left little doubt that they feel the Shiite premier has squandered the opportunity to rebuild his country since US troops withdrew in 2011.
“We gave Iraq the chance to have an inclusive democracy. To work across sectarian lines, to provide a better future for their children,” President Barack Obama told CNN Friday. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen is a breakdown of trust.”
The seizure of Al-Qaim leaves just one of three official border crossings with Syria in the hands of the federal government. The third is controlled by Kurdish forces.
Anti-government fighters already hold areas of the western desert province of Anbar, which abuts the Syrian border, after taking all of one city and parts of another earlier this year.
Elsewhere, Iraqi government forces, fighting back against the insurgents after initially wilting before their onslaught, on Sunday launched an air strike on the militant-held city of Tikrit, killing at least seven people, residents of the city said.