Iraq crisis: US lines up Iran talks to combat Isis as 'mass execution' pushes Iraq towards sectarian war

Patrick Cockburn reports from Baghdad, a city now in fear of mass killings,  as photographs appear to show atrocities carried out by Isis forces

Baghdad

Iraq is close to all-out sectarian war as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) massacres dozens of Iraqi soldiers in revenge for the loss of one of its commanders, and government supporters in Baghdad warn that the spread of fighting to the capital could provoke mass killings of the Sunni minority there.

One unverified statement from Isis militants on Twitter says that it has executed 1,700 prisoners. Pictures show killings at half a dozen places.

Meanwhile, the US government was considering direct talks with Iran to discuss options for halting the Isis advance, an official from the Obama administration said.

The two countries were already scheduled to meet with other world powers to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna this week, and the US deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will now travel to take part in those talks.

President Barack Obama continues to weigh up options for international intervention in Iraq, and has now deployed three warships to the Persian Gulf, but on Sunday the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: “We are probably going to need [Iran’s] help to hold Baghdad.”

Early on Monday the mayor of the northern town of Tal Afar said it had become the latest landmark settlement to fall to Sunni militants.

Abdulal Abdoul told reporters his town of some 200,000 people, 260 miles (420 kilometres) northwest of Baghdad, was taken just before dawn.

Earlier, Isis posted pictures that appear to show prisoners being loaded on to flatbed trucks by masked gunmen and later forced to lie face down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs.

Final pictures show the blood-covered bodies of captive soldiers, probably Shia, who make up much of the rank-and-file of the Iraqi army. Captions say the massacre was in revenge for the death of an Isis commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Beilawy, whose killing was reported just before Isis’s surprise offensive last week that swept through northern Iraq, capturing the Sunni strongholds of Mosul and Tikrit.

Shia militiamen are pouring out of Baghdad to establish a new battle line 60 or 70 miles north of the capital. Demography is beginning to count against Isis as its fighters enter mixed provinces such as Diyala, where there are Shia and Kurds as well as Sunni.

In Mosul, from where 500,000 refugees first fled, the Sunni are returning to the city. Isis ordered traders to cut the price of fuel and foodstuffs, but religious and ethnic minorities are too terrified of Isis to go home. “People in Baghdad are frightened about what the coming days will bring,” said one resident, but added that they were “used to being frightened by coming events”.

Baghdadis have been stocking up on food and fuel in case the capital is besieged. There is no sound of shooting in the city, though searches at checkpoints are more intense than previously and three out of four of the entrances to the Green Zone are closed.

Read more: Robert Fisk: How does Blair get away with his lies?
Labour figures distance themselves from Blair
12 dead after suicide bomb in Baghdad
US rethinks of Iraq involvement

Isis may be the shock troops in the fighting but their swift military success and the disintegration of four Iraqi army divisions have provoked a general Sunni uprising. At least seven or eight militant Sunni factions are involved, many led by former Baathists and officers from Saddam Hussein’s security services. But the most important factor working in favour of Isis is the sense among Iraq’s five or six million Sunni that the end of their oppression is at hand.

“The Shia in Iraq see what is happening not as the Sunni reacting justifiably against the government oppressing them but as an attempt to re-establish the old Sunni-dominated-type government,” said one observer in the capital. On both the Shia and Sunni sides the factors are accumulating for a full-scale bloody sectarian confrontation.

The surge of young Shia men into militias was touched off by the appeal of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shia cleric, for people to join militias. “The street is boiling,” said the observer.

Some 1,000 volunteers have left the holy city of Kerbala for Samarra which is on the front line, being the site of the al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest Shia shrines in a city where the majority is Sunni.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militia force close to the Iranians, is said to have recaptured the town of Muqdadiyah in Diyala and Dulu’iyah further west towards Samarra.

A problem in Iraq is that the country’s sectarian divisions are at their worst in areas where there are mixed populations: the country could not be partitioned without a great deal of bloodshed, as occurred in India at the time of independence.

The Sunni-Shia civil war of 2006-07 was centred on Baghdad and eliminated most mixed neighbourhoods, leaving those Sunni who had not already fled holding out in enclaves mostly in the west of the capital.

A cadre of advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is believed to be putting together a new military force drawn from the army and militias. The regular army command has been discredited by the spectacular failure of the last 10 days.

Shia fighters in Basra respond to the call to fight Isis Shia fighters in Basra respond to the call to fight Isis (AP)

The involvement of Shia militia fighters at the front increases the likelihood of mass killings of Sunni. This had started to happen even before the present offensive in Diyala province and at Iskandariya, south-east of Baghdad, where militants were said to be building car and truck bombs and where the Shia militiamen are said by witnesses to have adopted a “scorched-earth policy”.

Iraq has effectively broken up as the Kurds take advantage of the collapse of the regular army in the north to take over Kirkuk, northern Diyala and the Nineveh plateau.

The Kurds have long claimed these territories, saying they had been ethnically cleansed from there under Saddam Hussein. Many of these areas are rich in oil.

The government in Baghdad, though vowing to return to Mosul, has a weakened hand to play. Its military assets have turned out to be much less effective than even its most severe critics imagined.

If there is going to be a counter-attack it will have to come soon but there is no sign of it yet.

Isis has taken some of the tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment to Syria which might indicate that it doesn’t want to use it in Iraq.

But as a military force, it has recently depended on quick probing attacks and forays using guerrilla tactics, so its need for heavy weaponry may not be high.

Additional reporting by Adam Withnall

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices