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U.S. cuts embassy staff in Baghdad as insurgents approach Iraqi capital

McClatchy Foreign Staff

June 15. 2014 8:40PM

IRBIL, Iraq — The United States announced Sunday that it was removing an undisclosed number of workers from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a tacit acknowledgment that the situation in the Iraqi capital had become unpredictable and that violence seemed likely.

The announcement came as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, all of them Shiite Muslims who’d been captured last week.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department did not reveal how many of its workers were being moved out of the embassy compound, saying that “overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place.” But even if a majority remains at the compound, the evacuation could mean the departure of hundreds of workers. The Baghdad embassy is the United States’ largest, with 5,300 U.S. government employees.

A separate announcement from the Defense Department said the evacuation of embassy personnel was “being facilitated aboard commercial, charter and State Department aircraft as appropriate.” The statement said U.S. military “airlift assets” were “at the ready,” but suggested that the State Department had not requested military assistance in the evacuation.

The statement by Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. military also had sent a “small number” of Defense Department personnel to assist “State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities.”

The decision to evacuate Americans from the huge embassy compound came as the likelihood of sectarian and ethnic violence in Baghdad grew. Fighters allied with the Sunni Muslim ISIS vowed to press their lightning advance across northern and central Iraq into the capital.

Earlier Sunday, ISIS posted photos on the Internet that it said depicted the execution of hundreds of members of the Iraqi security forces taken prisoner when ISIS overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit last week.

A statement accompanying the photos claimed the men were all Shiite Muslims — an assertion that is sure to inflame Iraq’s emotion-filled sectarian divisions that in recent days have inspired thousands of Shiite men flock to Baghdad to volunteer to help the army counter ISIS’s push into the capital and nearby cities.

ISIS, which now controls much of Anbar province in the west and Nineveh province in the north and has pushed into Salahuddin and Diyala provinces just north of Baghdad, considers Shiite Muslims to be heretics subject to death. The feud between Sunnis and Shiites dates to A.D. 680, when a Sunni army beheaded one of the most revered figures in Shiite history at the Battle of Karbala. Recent ISIS statements have urged its followers to march to Karbala.

In its statement accompanying the photos, ISIS said it had executed 1,700 Shiite prisoners in Tikrit, a claim that could not be verified. ISIS also said it had released 2,500 Sunni prisoners after receiving promises that the men would repent and no longer fight for the government.

An Iraqi military spokesman told the Associated Press that the pictures appeared to have been taken after a former U.S. military facility in Tikrit fell to ISIS forces. The spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, did not comment, however, on whether 1,700 had been confirmed killed, as the group claims.

The photos showed dozens of young men bound in the back of trucks, then being led into open fields and executed by masked men firing assault rifles. Most of the men appeared to be wearing civilian clothes.

The caption on one photograph, which showed a dozen young men with their heads bowed and hands bound behind their backs while being menaced by masked gunmen, said the Iraqi Army’s “lions had been turned into ostriches.” Other captions described similar scenes as “the apostates being led to their doom.”

The sectarian nature of the conflict was emphasized by the U.S. announcement on where it was redeploying its embassy workers.

The State Department said the they would be sent to Amman, Jordan, where the U.S. operates a mission to support American activities in Iraq, or to two Iraqi cities distinguished by their ethnic and religious homogeneity — Irbil, in the north, which has a majority Kurd population, or Basra, in the far south, where Shiite Muslims predominate.

The State Department also warned Americans to limit their travel to five Iraqi provinces where Sunni Arab Muslims are either the dominant group or a significant minority — Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Dyiala and Kirkuk.

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