Iraqi forces, bolstered by new recruits, get ready to push back against ISIL (LIVE BLOG)

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UPDATE: 6/20/14 4:30 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/20/14 1:00 PM ET

UN chief warns against air strikes

When President Obama made his remarks about Iraq on Thursday, he said, "The United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another."

While Obama didn't explicitly mention air strikes in that portion of the statement or rule them out completely, his statement did seem to be in response to the Iraqi Shia-led government's request for air strikes against ISIL and Sunni militants currently fighting government forces.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday warned against military action that might seem to favor one side in what is quickly becoming a Sunni vs. Shia conflict in Iraq.

As Foreign Policy reports:

"The Sunni extremists of ISIS are trying to show that the government in Baghdad, Iran and the United States are working together to support atrocities against Sunnis," Ban said in a speech at the Asia Society that was devoted mostly to one of his harshest criticisms to date of the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. "This perception would help them mobilize support from the Sunni majority that does not share the extremists' agenda. It is essential that the government of Iraq and its supporters do everything possible to avoid falling into this trap."

UPDATE: 6/20/14 12:25 PM ET

In Erbil, an uneasy tension and long gas lines

GlobalPost's Susannah George reports from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan:

There's a reason so many refugees from Iraq's north have come to Erbil: it's safe.

Located in the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Erbil is relatively isolated from the fighting between Al Qaeda-inspired militants and Iraqi forces a few miles away. The Peshmerga, or Kurdish security forces, run a tight ship, and construction hasn't missed a beat in this resource-rich boomtown.

While violence engulfs Iraq's largest oil refinery in Baiji, also in the north, the Kurdish region's gas supply remains a separate entity, sourced and refined domestically.

But that doesn't mean people aren't worried.

You can read anxiety in the long lines at the gas station. Cars snake down highways, sometimes for more than a mile, waiting to fill up with rationed fuel. Individuals are only allowed 30 liters, under eight gallons, less than what it takes to fill most car tanks.

The run on gas in Erbil reflects a general uneasiness as people prepare for the worst and Iraq teeters on the edge of a full-blown civil war.

"It's because of Daash," said Ahmed Nader, a 22-year-old construction worker using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, which has been leading the charge across Iraq's north and is now encroaching on Baghdad.

Read the full report here.

UPDATE: 6/20/14 12:00 PM ET

Did Iraq's top Shia cleric chide Maliki?

Iraq's top Shia cleric made headlines last week when he issued a call to arms for Shias to defend holy sites in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's latest comments on Friday might be interpreted as a critique of Maliki's governance. Agence France-Presse reports:

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered cleric whose stature dwarfs that of any other figure among the Shiite majority, called for Iraqis to band together against the insurgents before it was too late.

If ISIL is not "fought and expelled from Iraq, everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning," his spokesman announced on his behalf.

The reclusive Sistani, who heads a council of senior clerics, also said Iraq's next government must be "effective" and avoid "past mistakes," an apparent rebuke to Maliki, premier since 2006.

His remarks came after several senior American figures pushed the premier, who is seeking to retain his post after winning a plurality in April 30 elections, to work with Iraq's Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.

A Shia supporter holds up a portrait of Sistani on June 14, 2014:

UPDATE: 6/20/14 11:40 AM ET

Fighting in Baiji and Tal Afar

The BBC reports fierce fighting at the Baiji oil refinery and the Tal Afar airport between ISIL-led militants and pro-Iraqi government forces.

The insurgents claim to have captured most of Tal Afar airport and surrounded the oil refinery.

This satellite photo provided by the USGS, shows smoke billowing from the Baiji refinery complex on June 18, 2014.

UPDATE: 6/20/14 11:15 AM ET

ISIL reportedly destroys tombs, cultural icons

Reuters — Militant Sunni Islamists who seized swathes of northern Iraq last week have destroyed symbols of Iraq's heritage in the city of Mosul, including statues of cultural icons and the tomb of a medieval philosopher.

Witnesses said militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had destroyed a statue of Othman al-Mousuli, a 19th Century Iraqi musician and composer, and the statue of Abu Tammam, an Abbasid-era Arab poet.

The tomb of Ibn al-Athir, an Arab philosopher who traveled with the army of warrior sultan Salahuddin in the 12th century was desecrated after ISIL took the city. Witnesses said the domed shrine had been razed and a park around it dug up.

ISIL and other militants, whose strict Salafi interpretation of Islam deems the veneration of tombs to be idolatrous, have destroyed several tombs and mosques inside Syria and now in neighboring Iraq where they have seized towns and cities.

Militants also stole around 250 horses from the governor of Mosul's house and took control of cereal silos, the witnesses said. They said some of the horses that were too sick to be moved were killed.

State television, run by the Iraqi government which is fighting ISIL, said the militants had imposed a tax on Christians living in the city. Reuters could not independently confirm the report. Most of Mosul's Christians have fled the city.

UPDATE: 6/20/14 10:30 AM ET

Iraqi forces bolstered by Shia volunteers and militias

Reuters — Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at Sunni Islamists whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.

President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the Shia-led government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.

Speculation that Maliki might be forced aside was heightened when the country's senior Shia cleric urged a speedy formation of a new government following the ratification this week of the results of a parliamentary election held in April.

Maliki's Shia bloc won the most seats but, with stalemate among Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish groups, the new assembly has yet to sit. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wrote in a Friday sermon that a constitutional deadline for convening to choose a new prime minister and government should be respected.

In office since 2006, Maliki has irritated Washington with the way he has alienated Sunnis and there has been speculation he has also lost the confidence of allies in Iran as Tehran and the United States look to end decades of mutual hostility to prevent anti-Western, anti-Shia zealots taking over Iraq.

In the area around Samarra, on the main highway 60 miles north of Baghdad, which has become a frontline of the battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the provincial governor, a rare Sunni supporter of Maliki, told cheering troops they would now force ISIL and its allies back.

A source close to Maliki told Reuters that the government planned to hit back now that it had halted the advance which saw ISIL seize the main northern city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, 10 days ago and sweep down along the Sunni-populated Tigris valley toward Baghdad as the US-trained army crumbled.

Governor Abdullah al-Jibouri, whose provincial capital Tikrit was overrun last week, was shown on television on Friday telling soldiers in Ishaqi, just south of Samarra: "Today we are coming in the direction of Tikrit, Sharqat and Nineveh.

"These troops will not stop," he added, saying government forces around Samarra numbered more than 50,000.

This week, the militants' lightning pace has slowed in the area north of the capital, home to Sunnis but also to Shias fearful of ISIL, which views them as heretics to be wiped out. Samarra has a major Shia shrine.

The participation of Shia militias and tens of thousands of new Shia army volunteers has allowed the Iraqi military to rebound after mass desertions by soldiers last week allowed ISIL to carve out territory where it aims to found an Islamic caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.

"The strategy has been for the last few days to have a new defense line to stop the advance of ISIL," a close ally of Maliki told Reuters. "We succeeded in blunting the advance and now are trying to get back areas unnecessarily lost."

UPDATE: 6/19/14 4:30 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/19/14 2:20 PM ET

The US is prepared to send up to 300 military advisors to Iraq, but no boots on the ground

Agence France-Presse — US President Barack Obama on Thursday said he was ready to take "targeted" and "precise" military action in Iraq if necessary following the swift advance of radical Sunni fighters.

Obama said Washington was prepared to send up to 300 military advisors to study how to train and equip Iraqi forces and had already increased its surveillance and intelligence capabilities in the country.

Obama said his first priority was securing US embassy personnel in Iraq. He also added that the US had increased its surveillance and intelligence sharing with Iraqi forces.

While reiterating that US troops would not be entering Iraq, Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry would be making trips to the Middle East and Europe to consult with allies.

Obama stressed that the crisis in Iraq would only be solved by Iraqi leaders rising above their political, sectarian differences.

Obama's statement that "the United States will not pursue military actions that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another," indicates that air strikes on behalf of the Shia-led government may not get approval.

When he was asked about Maliki's suitability as a leader, Obama said, "It's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders." But, he added, it was no secret that Iraq currently had deep divisions between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders.

Outlining why getting involved in Iraq was in America's interest, the president said the US held humanitarian, strategic, and counterterrorism interests in the country.

The key to resolving the conflicts in Syria and Iraq would be a combination of internal factors and regional cooperation, Obama said.

Iran, which supports the Shia-led government in Iraq, could play a constructive role in the crisis if it was sending the same message to the Iraqi government that the United States was sending about the importance of inclusive government.

The Washington Post has a full transcript of Obama's statement and answers.

UPDATE: 6/19/14 11:50 AM ET

Obama will make a statement on Iraq

Reuters — US President Barack Obama will make a statement at 12:30 p.m EDT about the situation in Iraq following a meeting with his national security team, the White House said on Thursday.

Obama, who has been deliberating whether to authorize US air strikes to help stop an insurgency in Iraq, is expected to give an update on his thinking about potential American action in the region.

White House officials declined to comment specifically on what the president would say.

The United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein and withdrew its troops in 2011, has said Iraq's government must take steps toward sectarian reconciliation before Obama will decide on any military action against the insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an Al Qaeda splinter group.

The United States is flying F-18 attack aircraft launched from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush on missions over Iraq to conduct surveillance of insurgents who have seized part of the country, a US official said on Thursday.

Obama ended the US-led combat mission in Iraq, fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise, and has ruled out sending troops back to the country.

UPDATE: 6/19/14 12:15 PM ET

This is Obama's national security team, currently meeting on Iraq

UPDATE: 6/19/14 11:05 AM ET

State TV says Iraqi fighters in 'hot areas' will get paid $644 per month

Reuters — Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that volunteers who fight in "hot areas" with the country's security forces, which are battling an insurgency, will be given 750,000 Dinars ($644) per month, state television said on Thursday.

Non-fighting volunteers will be paid 500,000 Dinars ($450) and all volunteers will be given an extra 125,000 Dinar ($107) food allowance per month, the statement said.

Insurgents took two cities in northern Iraq last week and many soldiers have fled their posts during the continuing offensive, straining the army.

UPDATE: 6/19/14 10:40 AM ET

Maliki isn't going anywhere. In fact, he might be getting stronger

Responding to calls from US politicians like McCain and Feinstein for Maliki to step down, the Iraqi prime minister's spokesman said he would not leave office as a condition for US air strikes.

The White House has not formally called on Maliki to leave office, but spokesman Jay Carney said the US would "aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance," according to the Guardian.

Maliki's spokesman said on Thursday that Maliki had "never used sectarian tactics," and urged the West to support the Iraqi government rather than calling for Maliki's departure.

Far from weakening Maliki, the latest Iraq crisis has actually bolstered his Shia base of support, Liz Sly wrote in The Washington Post.

Reinforced by a call to arms from the country’s top Shiite cleric and by promises of support from Iran, Maliki has set about rallying the country’s Shiite majority behind his leadership as Sunni extremists bear down on Baghdad.

Negotiations on the formation of a new government have been suspended, and instead, Shiite factions who had sought to prevent Maliki from securing a third term in office by aligning with Sunni and Kurdish politicians have thrown their support behind him.

UPDATE: 6/19/14 7:00 AM ET

Iraq's Baiji refinery still under attack as US weighs air strike option

Reuters — Iraqi government forces battled Sunni rebels for control of the country's biggest refinery on Thursday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waited for a US response to an appeal for air strikes to beat back the threat to Baghdad.

The sprawling Baiji refinery, 130 miles north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shia-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.

A government spokesman said around noon that its forces were in "complete control" but a witness in Baiji said fighting was continuing and ISIL militants were still present.

A day after the government publicly appealed for US air power, there were indications Washington is skeptical of whether that would be effective, given the risk of civilian deaths that could further enrage Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority.

Regional US allies seemed keen to discourage air strikes.

Read the full report at Reuters.

UPDATE: 6/19/14 6:45 AM ET

Obama meets with congressional leaders

Reuters — President Barack Obama came under pressure from US lawmakers on Wednesday to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of an insurgency threatening his country.

As Obama held an hour-long meeting with congressional leaders on US options in Iraq, administration officials joined a chorus of criticism of Maliki, faulting him for failing to heal sectarian rifts that militants have exploited.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing that Maliki's Shia-led government had asked for US air power to help counter Sunni militants who have overrun northern Iraq.

The general did not say whether Washington would meet the request. But Dempsey signaled that the US military — apparently much like Obama — was in no rush to launch airstrikes in Iraq, citing the need to clarify a chaotic situation on the ground so any targets could be selected "responsibly."

In Oval Office talks, Obama briefed the lawmakers on efforts to get Iraqi leaders to "set aside sectarian agendas," reviewed options for "increased security assistance" and sought their views, the White House said.

A senior administration official said afterward that Obama did not lay out a course of action at the meeting and had yet to make a final decision.

"The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," said US Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Republican Senator John McCain, speaking in the Senate, called for the use of American air power, but also urged Obama to "make it make very clear to Maliki that his time is up."

The Obama administration has not openly sought Maliki's departure, but has shown signs of frustration with him.

"This current government in Iraq has never fulfilled the commitments it made to bring a unity government together with the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Shia," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the congressional hearing.

Read the full report at Reuters.

UPDATE: 6/18/14 4:30 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/18/14 1:45 PM ET

Top US military officer says Iraq has requested US air support

Reuters — The top US military officer told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the Iraqi government has asked for US air support to help counter Islamist insurgents who have overrun part of the country in recent weeks.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee: "We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power" to counter insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but he did not say exactly when the request was made.

Asked whether the United States should honor that request, Dempsey responded indirectly, saying: "It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them."

UPDATE: 6/18/14 11:25 AM ET

Iraq is now a level 3 humanitarian disaster: UN

Within a matter of weeks, Iraq has reached a crisis level on par with Syria — at least according to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, the UN upgraded the situation in Iraq to its highest designation: a level 3 humanitarian disaster.

"Now we’re focused on delivering water, food and essential items," said Colin MacInnes, deputy head of UNICEF in Iraq, according to The Washington Post. UN officials are scrambling to provide for nearly 1.5 million displaced Iraqis after the events of the last few weeks.

MacInnes also said Iraq had a level 3 polio disaster. "With this designation in Iraq, that means we have currently three level 3 disasters that are affecting the country."

Read more about the possibly unprecedented situation at The Washington Post.

UPDATE: 6/18/14 11:15 AM ET

India's foreign minister confirms kidnapping of 40 Indian nationals

Reuters — Unknown assailants have kidnapped 40 Indian construction workers from Iraq's second largest city of Mosul, which fell to Sunni insurgents last week, India's foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

The identity of the kidnappers and the whereabouts of the workers is unknown, foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told a news briefing. No ransom demand has been received.

"The Red Crescent confirmed to us that as per their information, 40 Indian construction workers have been kidnapped," Akbaruddin said.

Islamist militants have long considered India a target. An Al Qaeda video released last week called on Indian Muslims to follow the example of Syria and Iraq and launch a jihad, or holy war, against the government.

Most of the hostages are from the north Indian state of Punjab and were working for a Baghdad-based company called Tariq Noor Al Huda, Akbaruddin said.

The sister of one of the men abducted said he had been out of contact since last Sunday.

"His phone has been switched off. We are tense and are wondering what happened to him," Gurpender Kaur told TV news channel CNN-IBN. "Until then, at least we were able to speak for a second or two, but now even that is not possible."

About 10,000 Indian nationals are working in Iraq, mostly in areas unaffected by the fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the national army. About 100 Indian workers are trapped in areas overrun by ISIL, Akbaruddin said.

UPDATE: 6/18/14 9:45 AM ET

Saudi Arabia warns against outside intervention in Iraq

Reuters — Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday neighboring Iraq faced the threat of full-scale civil war with grave consequences for the wider region and, in an apparent message to arch rival Iran, warned against outside powers intervening in the conflict.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed for national unity with bitter Sunni critics of his Shia-led government after a stunning offensive through the north of the country by Sunni Islamist militants over the past week.

Maliki has also accused regional Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia of backing the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who want to carve out a Sunni caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

"This grave situation that is storming Iraq carries with it the signs of civil war whose implications for the region we cannot fathom," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a gathering of Arab and Muslim leaders in Jeddah.

He urged nations racked by violence to meet the "legitimate demands of the people and to achieve national reconciliation (without) foreign interference or outside agendas."

Saud did not elaborate but the remarks appeared aimed at Shia Iran, a key ally of the Maliki government. On Wednesday, Iran said it would not hesitate to defend Shia holy sites in Iraq against "killers and terrorists."

Saud said the three-year civil war in Syria, where a largely Sunni Muslim uprising has failed to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran, had "helped to deepen the internal disturbance in Iraq."

On Monday, Saudi Arabia blamed the Iraqi crisis on Maliki, citing what it called years of "sectarian and exclusionary policies" by his government against Iraq's Sunni minority.

UPDATE: 6/18/14 7:50 AM ET

Iraq's largest oil refinery falls to Sunni militants

Reuters — Sunni militants have taken control of most of Iraq's largest oil refinery, located in Baiji in northern Iraq, an official at the refinery said on Wednesday.

"The militants have managed to break in to the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery said.

He says clashes continue near the main control room with security forces.

UPDATE: 6/18/14 7:45 AM ET

Iranians will defend Iraq's holy sites against 'killers and terrorists'

Reuters — Iran will not hesitate to defend Shia Muslim holy sites in neighboring Iraq against "killers and terrorists," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, following rapid advances by Sunni militants there over the past week.

Speaking on live television, Rouhani said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to defend the sites and "put the terrorists in their place." He added that veteran fighters from Iraq's Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities were also "ready for sacrifice" against these militant forces.

"Regarding the holy Shia shines in Karbala, Najaf, Khadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines," he said, speaking to a crowd on a visit to western Lorestan province.

"These terrorist groups, and those that fund them, both in the region and in the international arena, are nothing, and hopefully they will be put in their own place."

Rouhani said on Saturday Iran had never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it was very unlikely it ever would. Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, a hardline force that works in parallel with the army, to advise the Iraqi army or its militia allies.

Iraqi Shia and Sunni political leaders made a joint call for national unity on Tuesday after a closed-door meeting called after a week of sectarian violence that saw Sunni militants seize northern cities.

Iraqi Shia tribesman parade their weapons in Baghdad on June 17, 2014:

UPDATE: 6/18/14 7:15 AM ET

Indians drop out of contact in Iraq

Agence France-Presse — Forty Indian employees stranded in violence-hit Iraq are "uncontactable", the foreign ministry said Wednesday, with a newspaper reporting the construction workers have been kidnapped.

A ministry spokesman said he could not confirm the report in the Times of India that insurgents have abducted the 40 workers in the northern city of Mosul amid a deteriorating security situation.

"Despite our best efforts at this stage we haven't been able to contact them. So they remain uncontactable at this stage," said spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told reporters.

"Beyond that I am not able to confirm or verify reports of a speculative nature (kidnapping)," Akbaruddin added.

"At this stage we have no reports whatsoever, no confirmation, no verification of any Indian national being involved in any violent accident or injury."

The Indian foreign ministry has set up a 24-hour control room in New Delhi to provide information on Iraq and was dispatching a former envoy to the country to assist its embassy in Baghdad.

The Times of India, citing unnamed sources, said the 40, who were working on various projects, were abducted by the militants during an evacuation of the Mosul area.

Since launching their offensive on June 9, the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured Mosul and a big chunk of mainly-Sunni Arab territory stretching south towards the capital.

As many as 46 Indian nurses were also stranded in Iraq waiting for the turmoil to subside.

Several have told NDTV and other Indian television stations by phone that they were living like prisoners at a state-run hospital in Tikrit city after being abandoned by their employers as well as the military.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/17/14 3:55 PM ET

De-Baathification contributed to the state of the Iraqi army

Agence France-Presse takes a closer look at the state of Iraq's army:

Iraq's army has been shaped by the United States' decision to disband the forces of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein following the 2003 invasion.

That gutted the army of experienced men, and created a mass of angry well-trained former personnel, some of whom are now believed to be involved in the militant advance.

"This army is not a mature force," Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said of Iraq's current forces.

De-Baathification, the process in which some members of Saddam's regime have been barred from positions in Iraq's new government, meant "very good people were either blocked from entering the service or forced out or denied promotion."

The problem was exacerbated, he said, when Washington and Baghdad failed to agree a deal leaving US military trainers in place, and US forces withdrew completely at the end of 2011.

Read the full piece.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 3:25 PM ET

The Iraq offensive was a long time in the making for ISIL

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, writes that ISIL has been building towards such an assault for at least two years:

Principally, in Iraq these militants (ISIS since April 2013) have spent two years breaking senior leaders out of prison and re-establishing a professional command and control structure; expanding operational reach, including into Syria, and exploiting rising Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, thereby encouraging sectarianism.

It has expanded extensive underground networks in Sunni strongholds, particularly Mosul, Baghdad and Anbar province; stepped up coordinated, often near-simultaneous bombings; and debilitated Iraqi security force capacity and morale through a concerted campaign of intimidation and assassination.

Read the full analysis.

Lister also told GlobalPost about ISIL's aims and leadership.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 3:05 PM ET

Obama plans meeting with Congressional leaders on Iraq

Reuters — Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said on Tuesday that President Barack Obama had invited the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives to the White House on Wednesday for a meeting on Iraq.

He told reporters at the Capitol that he, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had been invited.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 2:50 PM ET

Sadr's Shia Mahdi Army is alive and well

Photos from Iraq indicate the Mahdi Army, actually a Shia militia formed in the months after Saddam Hussein's regime ended, is alive and well. It was formed in 2003 by Moqtada al-Sadr and Imad Mugniyah.

According to Stanford University, "The group remained relatively unknown until April 2004 when it came into the spotlight during a violent battle against American forces in Najaf. This battle was the first major attack by a Shiite militia against the coalition forces in Iraq. After this battle and as late as 2008, the Mahdi Army was regarded as 'the most powerful force on the streets of Iraq after the American military.'"

These photos, from AFP/Getty Images, show members of the Mahdi militia taking part in training exercises in the Iraqi city of Basra on June 17, 2014:

UPDATE: 6/17/14 2:40 PM ET

Iraq's PM dismisses several senior commanders

Agence France-Presse — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dismissed several senior security force commanders on Tuesday in the face of a week-old militant offensive that has overrun swathes of the country.

Those dismissed included the top commander for the northern province of Nineveh, the first to fall in the assault, which has since driven south towards the capital.

GlobalPost's Susannah George spoke to Iraqi deserters in Erbil who blamed their humiliating retreat on a lack of leadership:

When Ahmed, a fellow soldier, heard a rumor that his commanders had vanished last week, he didn't believe it.

"We tried to make sure by calling them," he said, adding that he called their cell phones and designated military lines. "But we couldn't get in touch."

For nearly four days, Ahmed and hundreds of other soldiers held their positions, fighting back militants and hoping Baghdad would send a new commander or reinforcements. None came and government airstrikes were getting closer.

Ahmed says he and his unit had a choice: surrender to ISIL or to Kurdish security forces. They chose the latter.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 12:30 PM ET

UN warns that the Middle East could be on the brink of sectarian war

Reuters — The Middle East appears on the brink of wider sectarian war engulfing Iraq and Syria with radical Islamist insurgents wantonly kidnapping, torturing and killing civilians, UN human rights investigators said in a report on Tuesday.

Militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of Iraq in the past week, linking it with a major swathe of territory previously taken in eastern Syria during the civil war there.

"We predicted a long time ago the dangers of spillover both ways, which is now becoming a regional spillover," said Vitit Muntarbhorn, an international law expert who took part in the inquiry. "We are possibly on the cusp of a regional war and that is something we're very concerned about."

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday forces allied with ISIL in northern Iraq had almost certainly committed war crimes by executing hundreds of non-combatant men over the past five days.

A report presented on Tuesday to the UN Human Rights Council said foreign Sunni jihadi militants and funds had poured into Syria where rebel factions including ISIL were wantonly abusing civilians in zones they controlled.

"A regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer. Events in neighboring Iraq will have violent repercussions for Syria," the investigators' report said.

"Growing numbers of radical fighters are targeting not only Sunni (Muslim) communities under their control but also minority communities including the Shias, Alawites, Christians, Armenians, Druze and Kurds," it said of Syria.

Its reference to Sunni militants targeting Sunni civilians involved forceful pressure on Sunni women to comply with sharia (Islamic religious law) and acts of revenge against Sunnis who had served in the Syrian government.

Read Reuters' full report.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 12:15 PM ET

Some US troops are going to Iraq, to protect the American embassy

The Obama administration so far has said it is considering a range of options on how to respond to the crisis in Iraq. While Obama said last week that he wasn't ruling anything out, he did clarify that US troops would not be going back to Iraq.

On Monday evening, however, while Americans watched the US vs. Ghana game at the World Cup, the news broke that 275 US military personnel were being deployed to Iraq to protect the American embassy in Baghdad.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 11:35 AM ET

The ISIL, Sunni militant assault is 'life-threatening' for Iraq, says UN

Agence France-Presse — A week-long militant offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq is "life-threatening" and is the biggest threat to its sovereignty in many years, the UN envoy to Baghdad told AFP.

"Right now, it's life-threatening for Iraq but it poses a serious danger to the region," Nickolay Mladenov said in an interview on Monday.

"Therefore, there needs to be a realization in the region. The Iraq crisis must be solved by the Iraqis but they cannot do that without the international community and the constructive cooperation of the region."

He added that "Iraq faces the biggest threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity" in years.

Read the full report here.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 11:15 AM ET

Meanwhile, Iraq's Maliki defies calls to reach out and accuses Saudis of 'genocide'

Reuters — Iraq's Shia rulers defied Western calls on Tuesday to reach out to Sunnis to defuse the uprising in the north of the country, declaring a boycott of Iraq's main Sunni political bloc and accusing Sunni power Saudi Arabia of promoting "genocide."

Washington has made clear it wants Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to embrace Sunni politicians as a condition of US support to fight a lightning advance by forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But the Shia prime minister has moved in the opposite direction, announcing a crackdown on politicians and officers he considers "traitors" and lashing out at neighboring Sunni countries for stoking militancy.

The latest target of his government's fury was Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power in the Gulf, which funds Sunni militants in neighboring Syria but denies it is behind ISIL.

"We hold them responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that — which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites," the Iraqi government said of Riyadh in a statement.

Maliki has blamed Saudi Arabia for supporting militants in the past, but the severe language was unprecedented. On Monday Riyadh blamed sectarianism in Baghdad for fueling the violence.

In the latest bloodshed, scores of Iraqis were killed on Tuesday during a battle for a provincial capital, and fighting shut the country's biggest oil refinery, starving parts of the country of fuel and power.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 10:40 AM ET

Iraqi deserters say they aren't to blame for the army's collapse

Iraqi state security forces told GlobalPost's Susannah George that their commanders abandoned them.

"We had everything, all the necessary equipment, training, but we didn't have a leader," a soldier who asked to be called Hussein said Monday.

His brigade, stationed in northern Iraq for the last nine years, completely dissolved last week after the province's governor and many of the military's top leadership unexpectedly fled.

Hussein says he believes they were paid off by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who led the charge in northern Iraq. 

Read the full story here.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 10:10 AM ET

44 prisoners die in Baquba militant assault, Iraqi officials say

Agence France-Presse — At least 44 prisoners were killed in an overnight militant assault on a police station in the Iraqi city of Baquba, security and medical officials said on Tuesday.

Accounts differed as to who was responsible for the killings, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's security spokesman saying the prisoners were killed by insurgents carrying out the attack, and other officials saying they were killed by security forces as they tried to escape.

UPDATE: 6/17/14 09:45 AM ET

5,000 Iranians sign up to defend Iraq holy sites

Agence France-Presse — Some 5,000 Iranians have pledged online to defend Iraq's Shia Muslim holy sites against Sunni extremists who are waging war against the Baghdad government, a report said on Tuesday.

The pledges were made on the website, which was launched by a group naming itself the Popular Headquarters for the Defense of Shia Shrines, the conservative website Tabnak reported.

The Iranian pledges follow a call by top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to volunteer to resist the onslaught spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

UPDATE: 6/16/14 4:30 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 3:50 PM ET

Iraq's fugitive vice president warns that the conflict is part of a broader Sunni Arab revolt

Reuters — The violence in Iraq is part of a broader Sunni Arab revolt that could lead to a holy war in the country, and is not just a rampage by Islamist militants from an Al Qaeda splinter group, fugitive Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi told Reuters on Monday.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian war. "What happened in my country ... is desperate people revolted. Simple as that. Arab Sunni communities over 11 years faced discrimination, injustice, corruption," Hashemi said, rejecting the suggestion that militants from ISIL, also known as ISIS, alone were responsible.

"We do have about 11 to 12 armed groups, and they are being reactivated now. And we do also have political parties involved, we have ex-army officers, we have tribes, we have independent people in fact," he said in an interview in Istanbul. Hashemi, a Sunni sentenced to death in 2012 after an Iraqi court convicted him of running death squads while vice president, something he denies, has long accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of a witch-hunt against his Sunni opponents.

"We have many groups beside ISIS. I am not going to deny that ISIS are existing, that ISIS are not influential. No, they are influential, very strong, could be a vanguard even in the whole operation in Mosul and other provinces, but they are not representing the whole spectrum of the groups," Hashemi said.

He warned the situation could descend into a full-blown religious war and said Iraq's most senior Shia Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had fanned the flames when he called at Friday prayers for his followers to take up arms.

"If we leave things developing on the ground there will be a possibility for wide-scale sectarian warfare," said Hashemi, who divides his time between the Gulf Arab state of Qatar and Turkey.

These are the latest volunteers (primarily Shia) clamoring to join Iraq's security forces:

UPDATE: 6/16/14 3:40 PM ET

Iraq orders the internet to be shut down

Mashable and several other sources report that Iraq's Ministry of Communications has ordered a shut down of internet access in at least five regions of the country.

The shutdown order came after a directive on Friday to block social media sites likeFacebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The letter, embedded below, asks ISPs to "shut down the Internet totally" in five districts: Ninawa, Anbar, Saleh El Din, Kirkuk and Diyalah, according to a translation published byMohamad Najem, the advocacy director of Social Media Exchange, a Lebanon-based group that encourages Internet freedom in the Middle East. (Mashable has confirmed Najem's translation.)

You can view the letter and more details on Mashable.

The ordered shutdown is probably in response to ISIL's adept use of social media, after the group posted pictures of an alleged mass execution of Iraqi forces in Tikrit.

The Atlantic has a great piece on ISIL's sophisticated strategy:

It also employs social-media strategies that inflate and control its message. Extremists of all stripes are increasingly using social media to recruit, radicalize and raise funds, and ISIS is one of the most adept practitioners of this approach.

One of ISIS's more successful ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn. The app, an official ISIS product promoted by its top users, is advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the jihadi group.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 3:15 PM ET

Some Iraqis fear their own government more than ISIL

GlobalPost's Susannah George reported from Erbil, the city in northern Iraq where many Iraqis displaced from Mosul and other cities have fled:

Ahmed says he expects Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to try and take Mosul back by force. He described a scenario reminiscent of recent events in Iraq's southern Anbar province, where government forces have been battling militants since January.

"When the Iraqi soldiers come back they will drop every kind of bomb on us and shoot everyone," Ahmed said.

Last month Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international watchdog, reported that the Iraqi military dropped "barrel bombs," crude indiscriminate munitions, on residential neighborhoods in Anbar's Fallujah, trying to quell the Sunni revolt there.

At the moment in Mosul, Ahmed says he hears life has improved since the Iraqi military melted away and extremist fighters seized control.

"They took down the checkpoints," he said. "It used to take three hours to drive from one street to the next, now it only takes three minutes."

He called the Iraqi military an occupying force and described negotiating checkpoints as a daily humiliation.

Read the full report here.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 3:05 PM ET

The noises of possible cooperation between the US and Iran are making Israel nervous

Reuters — Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the "ungodly horror" of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shia Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar al-Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

"And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue," Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 12:38 PM ET

The US won't be coordinating military action with Iran

Reuters — US officials may hold discussions with Iran about Iraq's security crisis on the sidelines of nuclear talks this week, but Washington will not coordinate potential military action in Iraq with its longtime adversary Tehran, the Pentagon said on Monday.

"It’s possible that on the sidelines of those discussions there could be discussions surrounding the situation inIraq," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said, referring to talks in Vienna this week between world powers and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.

"But there is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran ... there are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq," he told reporters.

President Barack Obama has said the United States would consider military options for helping the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, push back the stunning advance that Sunni Islamist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have made there over the last week.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an "existential threat" for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo! News on Monday: "I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive."

But any US-Iranian coordination could be difficult. The two countries remain at odds over the conflict in Syria, and tensions remain in the wake of Washington's long, bloody war in Iraq, when US officials routinely accused Tehran of stoking violence there.

"It is not without precedent that we talk with Iran about security issues in the region. There were discussions about Afghanistan with Iran in the not too distant past,” Kirby said, adding, however, that there were no plans for military-to-military discussions with Iran.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 12:30 PM ET

Reports of more residents fleeing fighting in Tal Afar

Agence France-Presse has the latest on the fighting in Iraq:

In the latest fighting on Monday, militants entered and took control of several neighbourhoods of Tal Afar, a Shia Turkman-majority town in Nineveh province, according to officials and residents.

Abdulal Abbas, the local official responsible for the town and surrounding area, said Tal Afar was dealing with "martyrs, wounded, chaos and refugees," and that around 200,000 people — nearly half the area's population — had fled to nearby areas.

The town, which lies near the Syrian border in otherwise Sunni Arab and Kurdish-dominated Nineveh province, had briefly held off a militant offensive that saw fighters led by ISIL take control of vast swathes of territory north of Baghdad in a matter of days.

Militants also took control of the Al-Adhim area, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, on Sunday.

Read the full report here.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 12:15 PM ET

Spain carries out raid on suspected ISIL recruiters

Spanish authorities say they have arrested eight people suspected of recruiting members for ISIL. Officials said the raids were carried out in Madrid early Monday morning.

A statement said the cell's leader was once held at Guantanamo Bay, according to the BBC.

Reports in Spanish media that have not yet been confirmed suggest the leader was a Moroccan national, along with five other members. The remaining two were believed to be from Spain and Argentina.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 10:40 AM ET

ISIL militants overrun two more towns: Tal Afar and Saqlawiya

Reuters — Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of US-provided armor they have seized from the disintegrating army.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.

"It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies," said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby largely insurgent-held city of Fallujah.

Overnight the fighters also captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting on Sunday, solidifying their grip on the north.

"The city was overrun by militants. Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shia families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east," said a city official who asked not to be identified.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push. Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shia shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

Iran has longstanding ties to Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shia politicians who came to power in Iraq after the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up the government of their mutual ally would be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. It considers all Shias to be heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to its forces last week.

Its fighters are joined by other armed Sunni groups, who oppose what they say is oppression by Maliki's Shia-led government in Baghdad.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 10:15 AM ET

Iraq's crisis could lead to the United States and Iran cooperating

Reuters — The United States is considering US air strikes to help the Iraqi government fend off an Islamist insurgency as well as possible discussions with neighboring Iran, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday.

Asked about the possibility of such strikes, Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News: "They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important."

"When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise," he added.

Kerry also said the United States could be willing to talk with Iran to help Iraq's Shia-led government combat a Sunni Islamist insurgency.

"We're open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq," Kerry told Yahoo! News.

Earlier on Monday, a senior US official said there could be talks between officials from the United States and Iran, which is also majority Shia, on the sidelines of other talks in Vienna this week.

Kerry's comments come as the United States weighs its possible response to the conflict as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, continues its fierce onslaught across Iraq.

In the interview, Kerry called Iraq a strategic partner in the Middle East and said the United States was "deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country."

"It is vital, ultimately, to the stability of the region as a whole," he said.

Kerry also called on the government of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shia prime minister, to be more inclusive to various sectarian groups but stopped short of calling for his resignation, saying that was up to the people of Iraq.

"I don't think the United States should be issuing instructions or orders. I don't think any country should," he said. "We are adamant that Prime Minister Maliki and his government must do a better job of reaching out to all the representative entities in Iraq and bring them to the table. That has not happened sufficiently," Kerry said.

The United States has also increased security at its embassy in Baghdad and evacuated some personnel, and Kerry on Monday said he did not think that ISIL would be able to take over the key city of Baghdad, at least in the near term.

"But that remains to be determined by the decisions that are made in the course of next few days," by the United States, Maliki's government, and others, he added.

"I'm absolutely convinced we have the security we need for our embassy," Kerry said.

UPDATE: 6/16/14 10:00 AM ET

Read more

Read about earlier developments on our live blog from last week

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