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Updated: Tue, 17 Jun 2014 09:26:13 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Iraq conflict: Fighting northeast of Baghdad kills 44 detainees



Members of the Iraqi security forces patrol an area near the borders between Karbala Province and Anbar Province, June 16, 2014. The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East. REUTERS/ Mushtaq Muhammed (© IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Members of the Iraqi security forces patrol an area near the borders between Karbala Province and Anbar Province, June 16, 2014. The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East. REUTERS/ Mushtaq Muhammed (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3U3K9 REUTERS

Sunni insurgents pushed further into a province northeast of Baghdad, laid siege to a police station and battled pro-government Shia militiamen in overnight clashes that left at least 44 detainees dead, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.

There were conflicting reports on details of the fighting in the al-Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province.

Three police officers said the police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday night by Islamic militants who tried to free the detainees, all suspected Sunni militants.

The three said Shia militiamen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range. A morgue official in Baqouba said many of the slain detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest. All four officials spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their own safety.

However, Iraq's chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told The Associated Press that 52 detainees who were held at the station in al-Kattoun died when the attackers shelled it with mortar rounds.

Al-Moussawi said the attackers belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda-inspired group that last week captured a large swath of territory in a lightning offensive in northern Iraq.

The group is known to be active in Diyala, where Shia militiamen are deployed alongside government forces.

Nine of the attackers were killed, said al-Moussawi. The conflicting reports could not immediately be reconciled.

CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed, reporting Tuesday from the city of Erbil in northern Iraq, said Baqouba is a largely Sunni area that has harboured al-Qaeda sympathizers in the past.

Ayed told CBC News Network that fighting so close to Baghdad is making people in the capital nervous, and similar concerns are evident in Erbil, which is less than 100 km from the the fallen city of Mosul.

"We saw huge lineups of people going to gas stations, filling up in case they have to escape," she said.

ISIS has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. Their push has largely been unchecked as Iraqi troops and police melted away and surrendered in the militants' onslaught on the city of Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

But a call to arms on Friday from Iraq's top Shia cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, raised the spectre that the turmoil in Iraq is quickly evolving into a Sunni-Shia conflict.

CBC correspondent Sasa Petricic, reporting from a checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil, said some of those fleeing Mosul are Sunni.

They consider ISIS far too extremist and fear the ongoing violence.

"They are afraid of the fighting that's going on," he said. "They're afraid of the government bombing that has also happened. They're afraid of the government itself, and some of the younger men that I've spoken to have told me that they're afraid of being pulled in for the fighting. Both sides are looking for fighters."

U.S. mulls options

Meanwhile, nearly 300 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure U.S. assets as U.S. President Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating fast-moving Islamic insurgents, including airstrikes or a contingent of special forces.

The U.S. and Iran also held an initial discussion on how the longtime foes might co-operate to ease the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants. Still, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might co-ordinate military operations in Iraq.

Obama met with his national security team Monday evening to discuss options for stopping the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Officials said the president has made no final decisions on how aggressively the U.S. might get involved in Iraq, though the White House continued to emphasize that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.

Still, there were unmistakable signs of Americans returning to a country from which the U.S. military fully withdrew more than two years ago. Obama notified Congress that up to 275 troops would be sent to Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad. The soldiers — 170 of which have already arrived in Iraq — were armed for combat, though Obama has insisted he does not intend for U.S. forces to be engaged in direct fighting.

About 100 additional forces are being put on standby, most likely in Kuwait, and could be used for airfield management, security and logistics support, officials said.

U.S. special forces

Separately, three U.S. officials said the White House was considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers to Iraq. Their limited mission — which has not yet been approved — would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation's north and west as the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011.

Taken together, the developments suggest a willingness by Obama to send Americans into a collapsing security situation in order to quell the brutal fighting in Iraq before it morphs into outright war.

If the U.S. were to deploy an additional team of special forces, the mission almost certainly would be small. One U.S. official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorized only as an advising and training mission — meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but would not officially be considered combat troops.

'A range of other options'

The White House would not confirm that special operations forces were under consideration. But spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that while Obama would not send troops back into combat, "He has asked his national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces."

It's not clear how quickly the special forces could arrive in Iraq. It's also unknown whether they would remain in Baghdad or be sent to the nation's north, where the Sunni Muslim insurgency has captured large swaths of territory ringing Baghdad, the capital of the Shia-led government.

The troops would fall under the authority of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and would not be authorized to engage in combat, another U.S. official said. Their mission would be "non-operational training" of both regular and counterterrorism units, which the military has in the past interpreted to mean training on military bases, the official said.

However, all U.S. troops are allowed to defend themselves in Iraq if they are under attack.

The three U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the plans by name.

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