Iraq's dire situation has gone from bad dream to nightmare in two weeks of fighting that have seen Sunni Muslim gunmen assert control over a growing area, including, Kurdish officials say, at least two towns that lie on a crucial supply route linking Baghdad, the capital, with the mostly Shiite Muslim south.
The fall of towns in an area that American troops knew as the "triangle of death" because of its propensity for violence provided an ominous signal, the Kurdish officials said, that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its Sunni allies are working to encircle Baghdad.
"The picture is no longer scary," said Shafin Dizayee, the spokesman for the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil. "It has become close to a nightmare scenario, where we see Daash expanding and taking control of its borders." "Daash" is the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Another Kurdish official, Jabbar Yawar, the spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga militia, said ISIS fighters apparently had seized control of the towns of Iskandariya and Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, and were reported in some instances to be just 10 kilometres from Baghdad.
"This area controls access to southern Iraq, and it appears as if they might try to push into Baghdad or even south towards the city of Hilla," he said.
Southern Iraq is mostly Shiite, and it supports the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. Thousands of young men from the south have flocked to Baghdad to bolster the flagging army, and many observers have assumed that the flow of southern militiamen would help stem an ISIL advance that's captured much of northern and central Iraq in the weeks since the city of Mosul fell under ISIL control June 10.
But the loss of the southern approaches to the capital would change that calculus and add to the sense that Baghdad was gradually being isolated. On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers lost control of the last major crossing point to Syria, while gunmen allied with ISIL took control Monday of Tirbil, Iraq's only land crossing to Jordan. Anbar province, to Baghdad's west, has been largely under ISIL' sway since last year, and the group is now contesting government forces in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, to the capital's north and east.
As one town after another has fallen, the Iraqi government has insisted that most of the lost territory remains in government hands. But officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government provide a decidedly different view, one lent credibility by Kurdish estrangement from the al-Maliki government and ISIL. Their assessment of what's taking place in Iraq also matches that of a US defence official, who said ISIL and its allies were consolidating control of the Euphrates River Valley in apparent preparation for attacks on Baghdad.
The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to speak publicly, said Iraqi security forces were struggling to establish a defensive line centred on Samarra, a key city that controls the northern approaches to Baghdad. In a separate briefing, a senior US intelligence official said ISIL was also menacing the Iraqi air base at Balad, the country's largest military installation.
FIGHTING FOR OIL REFINERY
The only good news for the al-Maliki government, the Kurdish officials said, appeared to come from Baiji, where, the Kurds said, government troops remain in control of at least part of Iraq's largest oil refinery.
"My information is that there is still fighting inside the refinery," Yawar said. "When I last spoke with military officials in Baghdad, they said that about half the facility was in government hands and the other half in Daash hands and the government was sending special forces reinforcements from the besieged city of Samarra."
But Al Jazeera reported that the rebels had taken control of the refinery after offering 460 Iraqi troops still near the refinery safe passage to Erbil if they gave up their weapons. The ISIL would then hand the facility to local Sunni leaders, the network reported, quoting sources.
A government pullout from the refinery would be an economic disaster for the government and a boon for ISIL. The facility produces 60 per cent of Iraq's gasoline.
AVOIDING THE KURDS
So far, ISIL and its allies have mostly avoided direct confrontation with the Kurds' peshmerga militia, which has a reputation for military effectiveness, and the peshmerga has largely avoided direct confrontations with the Sunni insurgents, refusing to assist Iraq's army in repulsing ISIL beyond establishing a security line outside Kurdish territory, which stretches from the northern borders with Syria and Turkey south to the Iranian border. That Kurdish arc has remained more or less peaceful since the rebellion began.
The peshmerga also quickly occupied areas of the split Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk in the wake of the army's retreat. The Kurdish government has long coveted Kirkuk for its symbolism as an ancient Kurdish city and its rich oil fields.
The estrangement between the Kurds and al-Maliki's government is enormous. In the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, al-Maliki accused the Kurdistan Regional Government's president, Massoud Barzani, of collaborating with ISIL, and the Kurds and al-Maliki have verbally battled over the Kurds' push for autonomy and efforts to bypass Baghdad on oil sales.
Bridging that gap was the main reason Secretary of State John Kerry was in Irbil on Tuesday, meeting with Barzani, who's called for replacing al-Maliki.
Despite the country's dire security deterioration, there's been no contact between Barzani and al-Maliki since Mosul fell, said spokesman Dizayee and Harry Schute, an American security adviser to the Kurdish Ministry of Interior.
The last contact between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army, Schute said, was when "they handed over the keys to the facilities" in Kirkuk.
Added Dizayee, "Maliki has not been in touch with Kurdish leaders once about the crisis. He's adopted a stubborn position, and we simply cannot see how to go forward in light of this position."
During his meeting with Kerry, Barzani told the secretary of state that "we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq." Most analysts thought that statement meant the Kurds were unlikely to relinquish control of Kirkuk or to concede in their battle with Baghdad over oil revenues.
On Monday, Kerry met with al-Maliki officials in an effort to persuade them to reach out to angry Sunnis - who've flocked to support ISIL - and the Kurds. At least part of that effort was successful: Dizayee said a delegation of officials from Baghdad would arrive in Irbil on Wednesday to begin talks on the crisis.
-McClatchy Foreign Bureau