Middle East

Iraq crisis: Kerry vows 'intense support' to counter Isis

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Media captionUS Secretary of State John Kerry: "The support will be intense, sustained"

US Secretary of State John Kerry has vowed "intense and sustained support" for Iraq after meeting key politicians in the capital, Baghdad.

He said attacks by Sunni militants were a threat to Iraq's existence, and the next days and weeks would be critical.

The insurgents are expanding their control of towns in the north and west.

They are bearing down on a vital dam near Haditha, and have captured all of the border crossings to Syria and Jordan from government forces.

The key airport in the northern town of Tal Afar has also fallen, with some reports saying the town itself has been captured.

Heavily armed Iraqi troops are protecting the dam near Haditha. Its destruction would damage the nation's electricity grid. Residents told BBC Arabic that rebels had surrounded the town but had not yet entered it.

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Media captionShia militants have been celebrating recent gains against Isis, as Jonathan Beale reports from the Baquba frontline

An Iraqi military spokesman said that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers had been killed by Sunni Arab militants in the offensive that began with the capture of the second city of Mosul on 9 June.

'Existential threat'

On Monday Mr Kerry met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to discuss the crisis and also held talks with key Shia and Sunni figures.

The secretary of state said later at the US embassy: "The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together it will be effective."

He said the US support would "allow Iraqi security forces to confront [Isis] more effectively and in a way that respects Iraq's sovereignty".

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Image caption Kurdish security forces guard an oil refinery near Mosul
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jordanian helicopters fly near the border as regional tensions rise
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi forces patrol the Saudi border as they try to tackle Isis militants

Mr Kerry said Iraq's leaders faced a "moment of decision".

He said: "Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat. The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks and the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq's leaders to come together and take a stand, united against [Isis]. Not next week, not next month, but now."

Mr Kerry said that Mr Maliki had reaffirmed his commitment to forming a new government by 1 July, but added that no country had the right to tell Iraqis who should lead them.

"That's up to the people of Iraq," he said.

Analysis by Jim Muir, BBC News, in Irbil

John Kerry is trying to persuade politicians across the board to rise above the sectarian and ethnic divides and come together to pull their country back from the brink of fragmentation.

The question is no longer whether Iraq is splitting up - it is. The question is whether that process can somehow be reversed. The odds are not good.

A future Iraq will clearly have to involve a large measure of devolution, if not actual partition. It could happen bloodily, or by agreement.

It is unlikely Mr Kerry will find a single Iraqi leader apart from Prime Minister Maliki himself who believes the incumbent premier is the man to lead a reconciliation process necessary for a political solution.

But if Iran insists Mr Maliki has to stay - as it has with Bashar al-Assad in Syria - the chances of a settlement will be sharply reduced.

A solution would require some kind of understanding between the two major outside players, the US and Iran, but there is little sign of a meeting of minds so far.

Can Kerry pull Iraq back from the brink?

Correspondents say the US has been pressing for a more inclusive government, with greater representation for minority Sunnis.

A statement from Mr Maliki's office after the Kerry meeting said the crisis in Iraq represented "a threat not only to Iraq but to regional and international peace".

The BBC's Richard Galpin in Baghdad says there was no sign of the US agreeing to what the Iraqi leaders really want - air strikes on the insurgents.

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Media captionIraqi forces are "fighting back", reports John Simpson

The US, which pulled out of Iraq in 2011, has already announced it is deploying some 300 military advisers to Iraq to help in the fight against the insurgents.

The Pentagon has confirmed that Iraq has given the advisers legal protection.

Neighbouring Iran says it opposes US intervention. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Washington of "seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges".

Prisoners killed

The rebels of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have now taken three key border crossings in Anbar province that link Iraq to Jordan and Syria.

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Media captionThe BBC's Reda El Mawy met religious minorities affected by the conflict

The capture of the Syria crossings could help Isis transport weapons and other equipment to different battlefields, analysts say.

Police sources also told the BBC that 70 prisoners had been killed near the city of Hillah, south of Baghdad.

The prisoners, who were all accused of terrorism, were being moved further south for security reasons when the convoy came under attack by gunmen.

They were killed in the crossfire. Several policemen were injured and six of the gunmen were shot dead, police said.

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