Iraqi forces were engaged in a tense stand-off outside two cities said to have been taken over by al-Qaeda as the Government attempted to end its latest crisis without major bloodshed.
At least 200 troops, rebel fighters and civilians have already been killed in clashes and bomb blasts across west and northwest Iraq since fighting began last week between militants, the army and local tribes loyal to the Government.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, called on the people of Fallujah, one of the two cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the local al-Qaeda group, to drive out the militants themselves. The army, which has surrounded the city, held off from an assault. Al-Qaeda is also said to partly control Ramadi.
Fallujah was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the insurgency against the US presence in Iraq after the allied invasion of 2003. Then, as now, al-Qaeda forces, believed to have been initially bolstered by Sunni remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, were attempting to drive out what they regarded as foreign-backed forces.
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Meanwhile the attack underway by rebels across northern Syria on ISIS has been long awaited. ISIS managed to offend just about everyone: civilians on whom it inflicted its aggressively puritan morals, secular rebel groups with which it picked fights, and even other Islamist militant leaders.
Taking on ISIS is a major risk for these rebels, who comprise secular fighters still vaguely loyal to the original pro-democracy, Western-aligned goals of the revolution and Islamist groups. If the attack fails they will face ferocious retribution. Even if it does succeed in destroying ISIS, the fighting between the two sides will be a boon to the Assad regime.
However, the rewards could be even bigger. The rise of ISIS has becalmed the armed opposition inside Syria. Western governments will no longer touch it, and have suspended what little quasi-military aid they were sending.The fight against ISIS is being led by the most important single rebel outfit in northern Syria, Ahrar al-Sham, and its allies in the Islamic Front. They too want an Islamist state: they just do not see their fight as crossing borders, as ISIS does.
But a more unified Sunni opposition would be regarded by the West as a step in the right direction, and by its backers in the Gulf as an unalloyed advantage.