The capture of another northern Iraqi city by Sunni militants with the al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS on Monday is sending thousands of refugees fleeing southeast to Erbil, CBC News reports from Iraq, as the U.S. president announced plans to send military personnel to help stop the violent tide.
CBC News reporters Margaret Evans (@mevansCBC), Sasa Petricic (@sasapetricic), Nahlah Ayed (@NahlahAyed) and Tracey Seeley (@tracyseeley) are on the ground in the northeast city of Erbil, only 90 kilometres east of Mosul, where militants with the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) have taken control.
Erbil is considered safe by some Iraqis because it is controlled by the Kurds, who have managed to keep the militants away from this area of the country.
"Those militants have become famous for attacking and taking over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit," Petricic said. "They've been posting horrific pictures of people who have been killed and assassinated."
As the Iraqi military has run away during most of these situations, Petricic said, many of the people in Iraq are very afraid of these developments.
The Iraqi government has asked for help from the American government. It appears it may be getting it in the form of up to 275 U.S. military personnel.
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U.S. President Barack Obama told Congress in a letter on Monday the deployment would be "for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary," and that the Americans would be "equipped for combat."
"This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed," the letter states.
Meanwhile, Petricic said, there are other signs military assistance may be coming, as four U.S. warships have sailed into the Persian Gulf.
"The United States has moved a couple of major ships into the Persian Gulf — into this region. Perhaps positioning them for some kind of airstrike," Petricic said.
The refugees in Erbil have made it clear they want help. They just don't know where it will come from.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been fleeing into Erbil, trying to escape the path of militants who have been systematically taking over cities in the volatile nation.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday ISIS militants have "almost certainly committed war crimes" with "cold-blooded executions" of hundreds of civilians, Petricic reported.
The radical Sunni group itself has boasted about killing hundreds of people, with the group releasing videos of militants tormenting Shia Muslim prisoners, including one man in an Iraqi army uniform, and asking them about religion. There are fears that such scenes will cause an explosion of sectarian bloodshed all over the region.
Speaking from Erbil, Petricic told CBC's Power & Politics host Evan Solomon that "the panic is palpable" in Iraq as more images of Sunni militants killing civilians get distributed.
"People are really, really afraid of what's going on in the rest of Iraq," he said.
As for where ISIS may be headed next in its bid to conquer more Iraqi territory, Petricic said that's the question weighing on most everyone's minds. For the time being, he said, it doesn't look likely that ISIS forces will be able to seize the capital as Shia volunteers take up arms and prepare to fend off rebels.
"They're moving closer and closer to Baghdad. Most people here don't think ISIS is going to be actually able to take over Baghdad; it's probably not strong enough, and the resistance from the Shia inside that city now … will probably not allow this militant group to go into the capital city."
A possible role for Iran
While critics have argued the Obama administration is being too slow to react to the crisis in Iraq, Larry Diamond, a Middle East analyst with Stanford University in California, says the U.S. president is being careful not to play into the hands of ISIS.
"He's handled this carefully and wisely. I think it would be a huge mistake to commit American ground troops. This is what these ruthless Islamist terrorist thugs want, is to enmesh the United States in another ground war in Iraq," Diamond said.
He added that unifying Iraqis across sectarian lines to repel the militants starts with government.
"I think the only way it can truly be stopped is by constructing a broadly inclusive government in Baghdad that Iraqis of all types want to fight for," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that American drone strikes are an option in a bid to halt the dramatic sweep by insurgents over a swath of Iraq.
He also said the Obama administration was willing to talk with Iran on ways to co-operate on helping to solve the crisis. According to The Associated Press, that rare strategic meeting was held on Monday between Iran and the U.S. on the sidelines of a nuclear meeting in Vienna.
U.S. state department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that military co-operation with Iran is not in the cards, but that the two nations could seek "a responsible diplomatic approach."
"Not military co-ordination or co-operation, but there's a shared concern about the threat of [ISIS] and that's why we would be open to that discussion," Psaki said.
CBC's Meagan Fitzpatrick, reporting from Washington, said the idea would be for the U.S. to encourage Iran to try to persuade Iraq to build a more inclusive government, one that isn't built so much along sectarian lines.
Already, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, is in Iraq, consulting with officials on how to roll back the al-Qaeda breakaway group.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told CBC News on Monday he was "horrified" by the violence perpetrated by ISIS, but that "Canada has not been asked to participate militarily" in Iraq, "nor is it something we're looking at."
Ottawa's chargés d'affairs left Baghdad yesterday. Canadians had already been warned to avoid all travel to Iraq because of the volatile situation there.