Syrian warplanes bombed Sunni militants' positions inside Iraq, military officials confirmed Wednesday, deepening the concerns that the extremist insurgency that spans the two neighboring countries could morph into an even wider regional conflict. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned against the threat and said other nations should stay out.
Meanwhile, a new insurgent artillery offensive against Christian villages in the north of Iraq sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes, seeking sanctuary in Kurdish-controlled territory, Associated Press reporters who witnessed the scene said.
The United States government and a senior Iraqi military official confirmed that Syrian warplanes bombed militants' positions Tuesday in and near the border crossing in the town of Qaim. Iraq's other neighbors — Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — were all bolstering flights just inside their airspace to monitor the situation, said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
American officials said the target was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, also abbreviated as ISIL), the Sunni extremist group that has seized large swathes of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
"We've made it clear to everyone in the region that we don't need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension," Kerry said, speaking in Brussels at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations. "It's already important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide."
Meanwhile, Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq, according to US officials who spoke on condition anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. The intelligence-gathering is in addition to the presence in Baghdad this month of one of Iran's most powerful generals, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, who was there to help Iraqis bolster their defenses and consult with leaders of Shiite militias that he has armed and trained.
The involvement of Syria and Iran in Iraq suggests a growing cooperation among the three Shiite-led governments in response to the raging Sunni insurgency. And in an unusual twist, the US, Iran and Syria now find themselves with an overlapping interest in stabilizing Iraq's government.
In a reflection of how intertwined the Syria and Iraq conflicts have become, thousands of Shiite Iraqi militiamen helping President Bashar Assad crush the Sunni-led uprising against him are returning home, putting a strain on the overstretched Syrian military as it struggles to retain territory recaptured in recent months from rebels.
Qaim, where the Syrian airstrikes took place Tuesday, is located in vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province. Its provincial government spokesman, Dhari al-Rishawi, told The Associated Press that 17 people were killed in an air raid there.
The White House said intervention by Syria was not the way to stem the insurgents, who have virtually erased Iraq's western border with Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan.
"The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place," said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman. "The solution to Iraq's security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime, but the strengthening of the Iraqi security forces to combat threats."
Reports that the Sunni militants have captured advanced weapons, tanks and Humvees from the Iraq military that have made their way into Syria, and that fighters are crossing freely from one side to the other have alarmed the Syrian government. The advanced weaponry has the potential to shift the balance of power in the largely stalemated fight between Assad's forces and the Sunni rebels fighting to topple him.
Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, said Assad's immediate priority is to fight the rebels inside his own country.
"His army is already overstretched and every bullet that doesn't hit enemy targets at home can be a bullet wasted," he said. "Going after ISIL along border areas could serve tactical goals but is more a luxury than anything else."
US officials believe Iraq's Shiite-led government should seek to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by the Islamic State. The insurgency has drawn support from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.
In Brussels, Kerry said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be standing by his commitment to start building a new government that fully represents its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish population. But he said the US is watching closely to make sure any new political process does not repeat past mistakes of excluding Iraq's minorities.
However, on Wednesday, al-Maliki rejected calls for an interim "national salvation government" in his first public statement since President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive leadership or risk a sectarian civil war.
Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
Al-Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed following recent national elections in which his bloc won the largest share of parliament seats.
"The call to form a national salvation government represents a coup against the constitution and the political process," he said. He added that "rebels against the constitution" — a thinly veiled reference to Sunni rivals — posed a more serious danger to Iraq than the militants.
He called on "political forces" to close ranks in the face of the growing threat by insurgents, but took no concrete steps to meet US demands for greater inclusion of minority Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's coalition, the State of the Law, won the 92 seats of the 328-member parliament in the election. In office since 2006, al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority to hold on to the job for another four-year term. The legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in parliament to form the next government.
Meanwhile, pro-government forces battled Sunni militants, threatening a major military air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, military officials said. The militants had advanced into the nearby town of Yathrib, just three miles from the former US base, which was known as Camp Anaconda. The officials insisted the base was not in immediate danger of falling into the hands of the militants.
The attack Wednesday by Sunni insurgents on the Christian village of al-Hamdaniyeh brought the fight closer to the largely Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, which had until now remained largely untouched from the chaos sweeping the country. The fighting sent tens of thousands fleeing from the village, 46 miles from Irbil, the seat of government for the largely-autonomous Kurdish regional government.
Underlining the persistent danger of Iraq being swept up again by sectarian bloodletting, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an outdoor market in a Shiite area of Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 15 people and wounding 30, police and hospital officials said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but it bore the hallmarks of Sunni militants who have for years targeted security forces and Shiite civilians.
Earlier Wednesday, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.