Middle East

Iraq crisis: Shia militia show of force raises tensions

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Media captionShia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has rallied followers to join a military parade across Iraq, as Jonathan Beale reports from Baghdad

Thousands of Shia militia loyal to the powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have paraded through the streets of Baghdad, raising sectarian tensions amid continued fighting in areas of Iraq.

The cleric, whose Mehdi Army fought the US in Iraq for years, had called for a military parade across the country.

Correspondents say the show of force will be seen as a very disturbing development by the Baghdad government.

Sunni extremists have seized control of large swathes of territory across Iraq.

On Saturday, officials admitted that the militants - led by jihadist group Isis - had seized a strategically important border crossing to Syria, near the town of Qaim, killing 30 troops after a day-long battle.

The capture of the crossing in western Iraq could help Isis transport weapons and other equipment to different battlefields, analysts say.

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Media captionFergal Keane reports: ''Isis suspects surrender (to the Kurdish snipers) and are made to strip for fear they are wearing suicide vests''

Thousands of largely Shia Iraqis have volunteered to fight Isis, urged on by a call from the country's highest Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

But the BBC's Jim Muir, in northern Iraq, says the impressive-looking parade of men in battle fatigues accompanied by serious military hardware will only raise sectarian tensions at at time when the government is under pressure to rally the country together against the extremists.

Analysis from the BBC's Jim Muir in Irbil

While keeping up the pressure on Baghdad from the north, where there is constant skirmishing in a belt roughly 70km (43 miles) from the capital, the militant Sunni rebels now seem to be preparing for a thrust from the west.

As well as taking the border crossing at Qaim, the rebels also say they have taken the nearby town of Qaim itself, as well as Rawa, about 70km to the east, the next stop on the Euphrates as it winds its way towards Baghdad.

South-east of Rawa, the town of Aneh also apparently fell to the militants without combat, and the Iraqi army's regional command HQ nearby is said to be surrounded.

Anbar province is heavily tribal, and the rebels say they are negotiating the handover of towns and villages without bloodshed in co-operation with local tribes.

Since January, they already control the town of Falluja, only 30km from Baghdad, and much of the regional capital Ramadi, about 40km further west.

The militants seem to be trying to connect up these two pockets and secure control of the whole Euphrates valley from the Syrian border to Baghdad.

Two government-held towns, Hit and Haditha, stand in their way along a 140km stretch of the river between Aneh and Ramadi.

If the rebels can join up those two areas and take full control in Ramadi, they would be in a position to prepare for an assault on the western approaches to Baghdad, using Falluja as the springboard.

Iraq's sectarian split

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mehdi Army fighters have rallied in Baghdad, and as here, in Najaf to the south of the capital
  • Sunnis and Shia share fundamental beliefs, but differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation
  • The origins of the split lie in a dispute over who should have succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community
  • Sunnis are the majority sect in the Muslim world, but Shia, most of them ethnic Arabs, form between 60% and 65% of Iraq's population; Sunnis make up 32-37%, split between Arabs and Kurds
  • Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and their persecution of the Shia stoked sectarian tensions; the US-led invasion in 2003 gave the Shia an opportunity to seek redress
  • Nouri Maliki has been accused of denying Sunni Arabs meaningful representation and pursuing security policies that target them

Sunnis and Shias: What's the story?

Jeremy Bowen: Why Sunni-Shia tensions have returned

Iraq crisis: Voices from Iraq

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq soon to press for a more representative cabinet, hoping this could ease tensions between the country's rival Muslim sects.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama said Isis - which has an estimated 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria - had exploited a power vacuum in Syria to amass arms and resources, but denied this was because the US had not moved to back moderate rebel forces fighting President Bashar Assad.

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Media captionObama dismisses notion of "ready-made moderate Syrian force able to defeat Assad"

"We have spent a lot of time trying to work with a moderate opposition in Syria, but... when you get farmers and dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position suddenly to overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly-trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy," he told CBS News.

The US, which pulled out of Iraq in 2011, is sending some 300 military advisers to Iraq to help in the fight against the insurgents there.

But in the face of Iraqi calls for US air strikes, the White House is insisting that there is no purely military solution to the crisis.

The BBC's John Simpson, in Baghdad, says Mr Obama believes Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki has endangered the country by ignoring Sunni concerns and governing in the interests of the Shia majority.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for a new government to be quickly formed aiming for "broad national acceptance" and to "remedy past mistakes" is being seen as less-than-veiled criticism of the Iraqi PM, correspondents say.

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Media captionThe BBC released extended video of reporter Paul Wood under fire from Isis in Jalula
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Media captionA video posted online by Isis claims to show British and Australian nationals

The UN estimates that about one million people have been displaced within Iraq as a result of violence this year.

About 500,000 people fled their homes in the country's second-largest city, Mosul, which Isis captured last week.

Since then, rebels have made further gains. They claim to have seized parts of Iraq's largest oil refinery, at Baiji, and have also taken seized a disused chemical weapons factory in Muthanna, 70km (45 miles) north-west of Baghdad.

On Saturday the government again denied that militants had gained access to parts of the refinery but did admit the army was facing "violent attacks" from gunmen.

Image copyright THAIER AL-SUDANI

Isis in Iraq

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Media captionIsis fighters have been pushing towards Iraq's capital, Baghdad

Isis grew out of an al-Qaeda-linked organisation in Iraq

  • Estimated 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria
  • Joined in its offensives by other Sunni militant groups, including Saddam-era officers and soldiers, and disaffected Sunni tribal fighters
  • Exploits standoff between Iraqi government and the minority Sunni Arab community, which complains that Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is monopolising power
  • Isis led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an obscure figure regarded as a battlefield commander and tactician

Jihadi groups around the world

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