Latest news and developments from the crisis in Iraq, where Isis and insurgent allies who helped seize Mosul clash in Kirkuk province, killing 17
Sunni militants who fought together to capture swathes of Iraqi territory have turned their weapons on each other during clashes in Kirkuk province that cost 17 lives, according to reports.
The fighting erupted on Friday evening between Isis and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandiyah Order (JRTN) in Hawija, in Kirkuk province, sources told AFP.
There were differing accounts as to what sparked the firefight, which is a potential sign of the fraying of the Sunni insurgent alliance that has overrun vast stretches of territory north of Baghdad in less than two weeks.
One security official said JRTN fighters had refused an Isis demand to give up their weapons and pledge allegiance to the jihadist force.
Witnesses, however, told AFP the two sides clashed over who would take over multiple fuel tankers in the area.
Analysts have noted that while the Sunni insurgents, who are led by Isis but also include a litany of other groups including loyalists of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein, have formed a wide alliance, it is unclear if the broader grouping can hold together given their disparate ideologies.
Isis espouses an extremist interpretation of Islam and wants to establish an Islamic state, whereas other armed groups have political differences with the regime in Baghdad, suggesting the alliance could eventually break down.
“If history repeats itself, then ISIL [Isis], because it’s got a transnational goal of a caliphate, because it’s radical, because it’s got this ludicrously absurd… approach to Islam, they can’t help but break that coalition,” said Toby Dodge, head of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.
Isis, which is seen as the most capable militant group in Iraq, has for months clashed with groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria, where it also operates and where it is seen as far more extremist than even Al-Qaeda’s front group in the country.
Also on Saturday, Iraqi security officials said Sunni militants had seized a Syrian border crossing after killing some 30 Iraqi troops in a day of clashes.
The officials said Saturday that Isis and allied militants seized the crossing near the border town of Qaim, about 200 miles west of Baghdad, after battling Iraqi troops throughout the previous day.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
The capture of the Qaim border crossing deals a further blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied militants who have seized large swaths of the country, including the second largest city Mosul, and who have vowed to march on Baghdad.
Sunni militants have carved out a large swath of territory astride the Iraqi-Syrian border and seized Iraq’s second largest city Mosul earlier this month.
Militants have long traveled back and forth across the porous border, but the control of crossings allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment to different battlefields.
The fall of the border crossing came as US president Barack Obama said that Iraq’s conflict is the result of sectarian divisions that have been allowed to fester.
It is up to Iraq’s people and leaders to resolve those differences, said Obama.
“Some of the forces that have always possibly pulled Iraq apart are stronger now, [and] those forces that could keep the country united are weaker,” he told NBC Nightly News. “It is ultimately going to be up to the Iraqi leadership to try to pull the politics of the country back together again.”
Mr Obama is sending up to 300 US military advisers to Iraq and has threatened air strikes as Sunni Islamists have gained control of the north of the country and made a push toward Baghdad. Growing mistrust between Shia and Sunni Muslims has heightened tensions in the country, where the United States fought a war from 2003 to 2011, the president said.
Iraq’s prime minister Maliki faces mounting pressure to form an inclusive government or step aside, after a top Shiite cleric also strongly hinted he is in part to blame for the worst crisis since US troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2011.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected voice for Iraq’s Shiite majority, on Friday joined calls for al-Maliki to reach out to the Kurdish and Sunni minorities.
Al-Sistani normally stays above the political fray, and his comments, delivered through a representative, could ultimately seal al-Maliki’s fate.
Calling for a dialogue between the political coalitions that won seats in the April 30 parliamentary election, al-Sistani said it was imperative that they form “an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.”
Al-Sistani is deeply revered by Iraq’s majority Shiites, and his critical words could force al-Maliki, who emerged from relative obscurity in 2006 to lead the country, to step down.