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A boy carries an automatic weapon during a parade for an auxiliary militia formed by Sadr City residents to defend Baghdad, June 14, 2014. Militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the rebel juggernaut that captured Iraq's second-largest city and raced south in three days raising fears of the imminent fall of Baghdad, stalled for a second day on Saturday about 60 miles north of the capital, allowing the Iraqi authorities to recruit citizens to reinforce the country’s beleaguered military. (Ayman Oghanna/The New York Times)

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Members of a militia formed to defend Baghdad brandished their weapons.

Ayman Oghanna • New York Times,

Iraq braces as U.S. carrier is sent to Gulf

  • Article by: Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin
  • New York Times
  • June 14, 2014 - 11:35 PM

– A rebel juggernaut that captured Iraq’s second-largest city and raced nearly 200 miles south in three days, raising fears of the 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 militias to defend the city, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its allies halted their advance. There was no indication that they planned to push into Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush to sail into the Persian Gulf on Saturday, positioning the vessel and its warplanes closer to Iraq, Pentagon officials said.

The carrier is accompanied by two other Navy warships carrying long-range missiles.

The order will provide President Obama “additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

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 heavily defended, Shiite-dominated areas.

New clashes reported

There were reports of fresh clashes in Dujail, Ishaki and Dhuliuya in Salahuddin province, 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 exploited 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 end of the Iraqi weekend.

Cooking gas quadrupled in price, from about $5 on Thursday to about $20 on Saturday for a 35-pound container. The dollar, which is normally stable here, spiked about 5 percent overnight.

A military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, said government forces had reclaimed ground in the northern provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala and Ninevah, and insisted the capital was safe.

“The security in Baghdad is 100 percent stable,” Atta said. “The majority of Salahuddin province has been regained. The morale of the security forces is very high.”

But there were reports of continued skirmishing Saturday in many of the places he said were back in government control.

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 here, called the Sunni Triangle, an area where Sunnis predominated and which provided fertile ground for the rise of the Sunni insurgency and allies including expelled officials of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. It was also the area that cost the Americans by far the most casualties of the war.

The new Sunni Triangle’s apex extends farther north than before, reaching beyond Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown, another 140 miles north into Ninevah province. Its base is not quite as far south as before. In 2008, it included a belt of Sunni communities south of Baghdad, leaving the city surrounded.

Now the base remains north and just west of the capital, although as close as the western suburb of Abu Ghraib, where there have been reports of scattered violence.

The new Sunni Triangle does not encircle the capital the way the old one did, which made travel outside Baghdad a matter of braving a hostile gauntlet. But this time the militants have managed to imperil all three of the major highways to the north and Kurdistan, effectively cutting Kurdistan off from the rest of Iraq and worsening the risk that the country could be dismembered. During the U.S. war, all roads to the north remained open, if dangerous, and those to Kurdistan were safe once travelers left the capital.

Iraqis welcome outside aid

Also, the Sunni Triangle during the U.S. war never posed an existential threat to the country, and the possibility that militants might overrun Baghdad. U.S. military might, heavy air support, and intense intelligence efforts made that scenario implausible.

None of that exists now. 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, particularly in air support. They have denied reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Brigades foreign force, the Al-Quds Brigade, is already in the country.

By Thursday, the militants said they had surrounded Samarra, a Sunni Triangle town important to Shiites because of an important shrine there, and were negotiating the defenders’ surrender. On Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki flew there and toured the shrine as local journalists reported that fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant were in villages just outside Samarra.

If al-Maliki was concerned by the collapse of his military, he did not show it.

“We’re going to punish all the people who left their posts,” he said. “It was not a lack of weapons, it was a conspiracy.”

The day before, his government had been bolstered by a call from the Shiites’ supreme religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, for all able-bodied men to join the fight against the insurgents.

Many civilians volunteer

Thousands of civilian volunteers, most of them Shia, turned out to join militia units that would fight alongside the army. While an impressive show of support for the government among the Shia majority, it was hardly a vote of confidence in a military that has so far not engaged the insurgents face-to-face on any large scale, even though they have been moving through the Iraqi deserts in battalion-sized military columns, with trucks and seized equipment.

“They moved very fast from the north because of the people there, all Sunnis,” said Sheikh Rahman Abdullah al Saidi, a Shia leader who was organizing volunteers in Husseiniya, a neighborhood in northern Baghdad that is athwart one of the major highways from the Sunni Triangle. “They wouldn’t move a mile once they get down in the south.”

So far, at least, the insurgents seem to have realized that as well.

On Wednesday, al-Baghdadi’s message to his followers was urgent and strident: “Stand against the Shia campaign and head to Baghdad and the south to invade the Shia in their homes,” he said.

“All Sunni eyes are on you now and your brothers in Syria are waiting for you.”

© 2014 Star Tribune