The United States announced Sunday that it was removing an undisclosed number of workers from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a tacit acknowledgment that the situation in the Iraqi capital had become unpredictable and that violence seemed likely.
The announcement came as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, all of them Shiite Muslims who’d been captured last week.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department did not reveal how many of its workers were being moved out of the embassy compound, saying that “overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place.” But even if a majority remains at the compound, the evacuation could mean the departure of hundreds of workers. The Baghdad embassy is the United States’ largest, with 5,300 U.S. government employees.
The decision to evacuate Americans from the huge embassy compound came as the likelihood of sectarian and ethnic violence in Baghdad grew. Fighters allied with the Sunni Muslim ISIL vowed to press their lightning advance across northern and central Iraq into the capital.
Earlier Sunday, ISIL posted photos on the Internet that it said depicted the execution of hundreds of members of the Iraqi security forces taken prisoner when ISIL overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit last week.
A statement accompanying the photos claimed the men were all Shiite Muslims — an assertion that is sure to inflame Iraq’s emotion-filled sectarian divisions that in recent days have inspired thousands of Shiite men flock to Baghdad to volunteer to help the army counter the ISIL push into the capital and nearby cities.
ISIL, which now controls much of Anbar province in the west and Nineveh province in the north and has pushed into Salahuddin and Diyala provinces just north of Baghdad, considers Shiites to be heretics subject to death. The feud between Sunnis and Shiites dates to A.D. 680, when a Sunni army beheaded one of the most revered figures in Shiite history at the Battle of Karbala.
In its statement accompanying the photos, ISIL said it had executed 1,700 Shiite prisoners in Tikrit, a claim that could not be verified. ISIL also said it had released 2,500 Sunni prisoners after receiving promises that the men would repent and no longer fight for the government.
An Iraqi military spokesman told The Associated Press that the pictures appeared to have been taken after a former U.S. military facility in Tikrit fell to ISIL forces. The spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, did not comment on whether 1,700 had been confirmed killed, as the group claims.
The photos showed dozens of young men bound in the back of trucks, then being led into open fields and executed by masked men firing assault rifles. Most of the men appeared to be wearing civilian clothes.
The caption on one photograph, which showed a dozen young men with their heads bowed and hands bound behind their backs while being menaced by masked gunmen, said the Iraqi Army’s “lions had been turned into ostriches.” Other captions described similar scenes as “the apostates being led to their doom.”
The decision to spare Sunni prisoners — if true — stems from a desire by ISIL to maintain good relations with the large number of Sunni tribes in central and western Iraq that have joined its offensive, fueled by rising anger at Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been accused of sectarian discrimination and brutality.
In addition to ISIL, a mix of tribal fighters and supporters of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman who was deposed by the Americans in 2003 and executed by the Shiite-led government that came to power afterward, have joined the fight, angered at what they say is sectarian discrimination and brutality by Maliki’s government.
Highlighting the sectarian nature of the conflict, which has threatened the future of the modern Iraqi state, was Maliki’s decision — backed by Shiite religious figures — to call upon Shiite militias that had mostly been disbanded after the sectarian civil war that followed the American-led invasion. It has also drawn the attention of Shiite-ruled Iran, which appears willing to send aid and expertise, and perhaps deploy ground troops to help protect the regime.
Iraqi police and hospital officials said Sunday that a string of explosions in Baghdad had killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 30.
In the city center, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 21. After nightfall, another explosion hit the area, killing two and wounding five. The third went off near a falafel shop in the Sadr City district, killing three and wounding seven.
Baghdad has seen an escalation in suicide and car bombings in recent months, mostly targeting Shiite neighborhoods or security forces.
The police and hospital officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
As President Barack Obama weighs airstrikes against the militants, he has concluded that any U.S. military action must be conditioned on a political plan to try to heal Iraq’s sectarian rifts, a senior administration official said on Sunday.
While Obama has ordered unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq to gather intelligence for possible strikes on militant positions, the official said, the White House’s emphasis will be on prodding Iraq’s leaders to form a new national unity government.
The U.S., this official said, has asked Iraq’s prime minister Maliki to work with the Kurds to seek to convince the disaffected Sunni minority that the next government will be an “ally not an adversary” and to invest in Iraq’s depleted army. All three groups must be adequately represented in Baghdad, he said.
The president’s two-track response, the official said, stems from his belief that military strikes on Sunni militants, absent parallel measures to reform Iraq’s government, will simply hand the country over to competing Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni fighters and a future of unending sectarian strife.
The White House believes it has a brief window to pursue diplomacy, this official said.
But it is unclear how far the Iraqis would need to go in establishing a multi-sectarian government that would satisfy the Obama administration. Deep sectarian divisions have persisted since Hussein was ousted.
On Sunday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki raised the issue of internal reconciliation, event as she condemned the reports of the execution of 1,700 Iraqi military personnel, whom she described as “air force recruits,” as “a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent.”
“This underscores the need for Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum to take steps that will unify the country in the face of this threat,” she said.
The Associated Press and Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times contributed to this report.