22 Jun 2014

Sunni militants ‘seize three key Iraq towns’

Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), capture three towns in Iraq’s western Anbar province, security sources claim.

A military intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said army troops withdrew from Rawa, Ana and Rutba this morning and Isis moved quickly to completely control these towns.

The office for the prime minister’s military command said it had no immediate comment and would be giving an update on events in a press conference later on Sunday.

Earlier Syrian jets bombed rebel-held eastern areas close to the border with Iraq under the control of Isis, killing and injuring dozens in stepped up raids against the militant group since its Iraqi offshoot made stunning gains in northern Iraq.

Five raids killed at least 16 people and injured dozens more when bombs hit residential areas in the town of Muhassan just over 100km from Iraq, a day after tribal elders in the town along the Euphrates River, pledged allegiance to Isis.

The Syrian branch of the hardline Islamists, whose stated aim is to create a strict Islamic state straddling national borders, took over the town of Muhassan along with the Albuliland Albuomar, in the latest advance in eastern Syria adjoining territory the al-Qaeda splinter has seized in Iraq.

Divide widening in Iraq

Iraq’s sectarian divide is widening with Sunni militants seizing a Syrian border crossing.

Analysts have said the capture of the crossing in western Iraq could open up a supply route to other Isis fighters in Syria.

Sunni extremists have seized control of large areas of territory across Iraq in recent days.

They claim to have seized parts of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, at Baiji, and have also taken a disused chemical weapons factory in Muthanna, about 70km north-west of Baghdad.

The Iraqi government denied that militants had gained access to parts of the Baiji refinery but did admit the army was facing attacks from gunmen.

The hardline Islamist group, which has been involved in fighting rival insurgents for months to consolidate its grip on the oil rich Deir al-Zor province on the border with Iraq, is staging an offensive to capture the remaining parts of the province it still does not control.

Opposition sources have said their next targets are Shuheel, Mayadin and Abu Kamal, towns closer to the Syria border and now in the hands of rival Islamist groups, to allow Isis to stretch territorially to Iraq, where family and tribal ties overlap.

Won over without a fight

Isis already controls almost 70 per cent of the Deir al-Zorregion, according to some rebel sources. Although some towns have been seized after deadly battles with rival groups, other tribal towns have been won over by Isis without a fight.

Isis’s seizure of large amounts of weaponry and money from looted banks in Iraq after its capture of the city of Mosul have emboldened followers in Syria and instilled fear among tribal leaders in the eastern region, forcing many to make truces and accept their tutelage, some residents say.

Nevertheless Isis has also sought to build strong support among the major Bakkir and al Akaidat tribes in Deir al-Zor,from where many of its rank and file are drawn.

The hardline group also has been trying to build strong tribal support in the city of Raqqa, where it runs its affairs and remains the only provincial capital in Syria under rebel control.

The group’s headquarters were the target of intensive raids by al-Assad’s air forces last week.

Isis’s toughest fighters said to be behind gruesome executions that earned the group a reputation for ruthlessness are mainly foreign jihadists, including Chechen Abu Omaral-Shishani, believed to have a crack force of over 800 fighters.