Iraqi rebels seized four critical towns in the western province of Anbar overnight Saturday and Sunday, taking control of the last major border crossing to Syria still in government hands and opening a path for the rebels through the Euphrates River valley down to Ramadi, the provincial capital.
The four towns in western Iraq fell in close succession, opening the Syrian border and areas in Syria controlled by the group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to areas in western Iraq also held by the group.
After a lightning offensive that began in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in which most of central and northern Iraq’s Sunni Muslim-populated areas fell in 10 days, the militants refocused their efforts on western Iraq.
On Saturday evening, a large force of fighters with Islamic State came out of the Syrian desert to attack the last major border crossing in Iraq government hands at the town of Qaim, taking control of it late Saturday night in what local residents described as a vicious battle.
As the Baghdad government tried to cast the setback in a positive light, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to increase the pressure on Iraq’s leadership by signaling that the United States was open to the selection of a new prime minister who could bridge the deep sectarian divides in the country.
“The United States would like to see the Iraqi people find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq,” Kerry said Sunday in Cairo, at the start of a Middle East trip to rally Arab support.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, has shown no sign he is willing to step down.
Iraq’s newly elected parliament must meet by June 30, when it will elect a speaker and a new president, who, in turn, will ask the leader who enjoys the support of a simple majority in the 328-seat chamber to form a new government. Al-Maliki’s State of the Law won 92 seats, more than any other group but not enough to form a government.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that the rapid advances by the Islamic State group could spill over into Jordan and that the group “could amass more arms, more resources” in Syria. But the president, likening Islamic State to other groups such as al-Qaida in Yemen, once again said it was not a problem that U.S. troops could solve.
“And this is going to be a global challenge and one that the United States is going to have to address, but we’re not going to be able to address it alone,” Obama said in an interview excerpt aired on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Within hours of the fall of Qaim, smaller towns farther south into the Euphrates River valley began to fall to the Islamic State offensive, which was pushing down toward the town of Haditha, which controls the approaches to the provincial capital of Ramadi, as militants tried to link their power base in eastern Syria to the strong presence the group and its allies have in Anbar province.
Local media also reported that a much smaller crossing connecting Iraq and Syria had fallen to the rebels at Walid Sunday evening.
Iraqi officials portrayed a very different view to journalists in a daily briefing in Baghdad, claiming that units around Qaim and the villages of Anah and Rawah had been withdrawn to help a pro-government offensive.
The main army spokesman for al-Maliki said 50 tanks and 2,000 men had been sent to Haditha to reinforce the garrison there and would begin an operation to retake Qaim and the other villages shortly.
Haditha appears to the last major town in government hands north of Ramadi, where Islamic State has a strong presence and has been laying siege to government buildings in the center of the city for over six months.
The loss of Haditha would be disastrous for the Iraqi government because it includes Iraq’s largest dam, controlling water flow to virtually all of the fertile Euphrates River valley, which includes most of Iraq’s arable land.
It would also open the approaches to Ramadi and Fallujah, where the government’s positions represent its last control of any significant population center in the increasingly pro-Islamic State Anbar province, which controls the approaches to the capital from Jordan and Syria.
The New York Times, The Associated Press and Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.