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West Iraq frontier in rebel hands

- Kerry meets Maliki in Baghdad as troops abandon border posts

Baghdad, June 23 (Reuters): US secretary of state John Kerry met Iraq’s Prime Minister in Baghdad today to push for more inclusive leadership, as Nuri al-Maliki’s forces abandoned the border with Jordan, leaving the entire western frontier beyond government control.

Sunni tribes took the Turaibil desert border crossing, the only legal crossing point between Iraq and Jordan, after Iraqi security forces fled, Iraqi and Jordanian security sources said.

Tribal leaders were negotiating to hand the post to Sunni Islamists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who took two main crossings with Syria in recent days and have pushed the Shia-led government’s forces back towards Baghdad.

Ethnic Kurdish forces control a third border post with Syria in the north, leaving government troops with no presence along the entire 800-km western frontier which includes some of the most important trade routes in West Asia.

For the insurgents, capturing the frontier is a dramatic step towards the goal of erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Washington, which withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 after an occupation that followed the 2003 invasion which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, has been struggling to help Maliki’s administration contain a Sunni insurgency led by ISIS, an al Qaida offshoot which seized northern cities this month.

President Barack Obama agreed last week to send up to 300 special forces troops as advisers, but has held off from providing air strikes and ruled out redeploying ground troops.

But Washington has also been sympathetic to complaints from many Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam, that Maliki has pursued a sectarian Shia agenda, excluding them from power.

One of the most important Sunni leaders active in Baghdad politics, speaker of parliament Osama al-Nujaifi, agreed with Kerry that a twin-track approach was needed to defeat the threat from ISIS: “We have to confront it through direct military operations and through political reform,” he told Kerry.

Jordanian army sources said Jordan’s troops had been put in a state of alert in recent days along the 181-km border with Iraq, redeploying in some areas as part of steps to ward off “any potential or perceived security threats”.

The Jordan border post was in the hands of Sunni tribesmen. An Iraqi tribal figure said there was a chance it would soon be passed to control of the militants, who seized the nearby crossing to Syria on the Damascus-Baghdad highway on Sunday.

He said he was mediating with ISIS in a “bid to spare blood and make things safer for the employees of the crossing”.

The need to battle the Sunni insurgency has put the US on the same side as its enemy of 35 years, Iran, which has close ties to the Shia parties that came to power in Baghdad after US forces toppled Saddam. However, Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei made clear yesterday that a rapprochement would not be easy.

 
 
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