A rebel juggernaut that captured Iraq’s second-largest city and raced nearly 200 miles south in three days, raising fears of an imminent assault on Baghdad, stalled for a second day Saturday about 60 miles north of the capital, leaving residents bracing for a siege that so far has not happened.
While some Baghdad residents scrambled to leave, hoarded food or rushed to join auxiliary militias to defend the city, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and their allies halted their advance within a two-hour drive to the north. There was no indication that they were seeking to push into Baghdad proper.
The rebel leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had boasted that he would soon take the capital and press on to the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq, fell silent as his followers worked to consolidate their gains in predominantly Sunni parts of the country, instead of trying to fight their way through more heavily defended, Shiite-dominated areas.
There were reports of fresh clashes in Dujail, Ishaqi and Dhuliuya, just north of Baghdad, as newly armed Shiite militias surged to confront the largely Sunni insurgents. However, there did not appear to be any decisive engagements between the insurgents and the Iraqi military, and there was no clear evidence to support a claim by an Iraqi general on Saturday that the Iraqi army had rolled the militants back in on those towns.
The Iraqi authorities used the breather to recruit citizens to reinforce the country’s beleaguered military, while worried Baghdad residents began to stockpile essentials, sending prices skyrocketing Saturday.
The advance of the Sunni extremists brought under their influence a broad swath of territory beginning about 60 miles north of the capital and extending 220 miles north to Mosul and 200 miles west to the deserts of Anbar province, where the insurgents have controlled the city of Fallujah for the past six months.
The territory essentially reconstitutes what the U.S. military, during its war in Iraq, called the Sunni Triangle, an area where Sunnis predominated and which provided fertile ground for the rise of Sunni insurgency and allies including expelled officials of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. It was also the area that cost the Americans the most casualties.
The Iraqis have said they would welcome outside aid, and officials have warned they might have to ask for Iranian assistance if America is not forthcoming. They have denied reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s foreign force, the Al-Quds Brigade, is already in the country.
On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran would not rule out working together with the United States to battle Sunni extremist fighters in Iraq but was waiting for the United States to make a move.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush to sail from the North Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf on Saturday, positioning it closer to Iraq.