Iraqi policemen stand guard June 14 on a street in the central Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf as security forces ready a counter-offensive against militants north of the capital Baghdad. (Haider Hamdani / Getty Images)
This image posted on a militant website June 14 appears to show militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with captured Iraqi soldiers wearing plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq. (AP)
Crisis in Iraq
- Kerry: U.S. open to talks with Iran over Iraq
- Sunni militants capture northern Iraqi town
- U.S. evacuating embassy staff as bombs, fighting rock Iraq
- Militants post images of mass killing in Iraq
- Ships move into Gulf as U.S. lays out goals for Iraq
- Obama: U.S. will not send troops into combat in Iraq
WASHINGTON — Security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was bolstered and some staff members were being moved out of Iraq’s capital city as it was threatened by the advance of an al-Qaida inspired insurgency, a State Department spokeswoman said Sunday.
Jen Psaki said in a statement that much of U.S. embassy staff will stay in place even as parts of the country experience instability and violence. She did not say the number of personnel affected. The embassy is within Baghdad’s Green Zone. It has about 5,000 personnel, making it the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world.
“Overall, a substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission,” she said.
Some embassy staff members have been temporarily moved elsewhere to more stable places at consulates in Basra in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq and Irbil in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq and to Jordan, she said.
U.S. travelers in the country were encouraged to avoid all by essential travel and exercise great caution.
The State Department issued a travel warning for Iraq Sunday night that cautioned U.S. citizens to avoid “all but essential travel to Iraq. Travel within Iraq remains dangerous given the security situation.”
“U.S. citizens in Iraq remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence,” the travel warning said. The warning said that certain areas of Iraq are more dangerous than others, such as areas north of Baghdad and near the Syrian, Turkish or Iranian borders. Violence in many regions of the country is as intense as it’s been since 2007, the warning said.
It warned of the dangers of a variety of improvised explosive devices, mines placed on or concealed near roads, mortars and rockets, and shootings using various direct-fire weapons. The attacks “often occur in public gathering places,” the warning said.
Psaki said the movement of embassy personnel will cause the embassy to be “restricted in its ability to offer all consular services; but emergency services are always available to U.S. citizens in need at any embassy or consulate anywhere in the world.”
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement that a “small number” of military personnel are helping to keep State Department facilities safe in Baghdad. He said embassy personnel are being moved by commercial, charter and State Department aircraft. But, Kirby says, the U.S. military has “airlift assets at the ready” should the State Department request them. A U.S. military official said about 100 Marines and Army soldiers have been sent to Baghdad to help with embassy security.
The State Department acted as the Iraqi government sought to bolster its defenses in Baghdad on Sunday. Despite the added security, a string of explosions killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 30 in the city, police and hospital officials said. And, an Islamic militant group behind the strife. the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, posted graphic photos that appeared to show its fighters massacring dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said the ISIL militants’ claim of killing the Iraqi troops “is horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that those terrorists represent.”
She added that a claim that 1,700 were killed could not be confirmed by the U.S.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Obama on Sunday was briefed on the situation by National Security Adviser Susan Rice as he was spending Father’s Day in Rancho Mirage, California.
Secretary of State John Kerry made calls to foreign ministers in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss the threat and the need for Iraqi leaders to work together.
Earlier Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot keep his country together, and a U.S. alliance with Iran might be needed to do so.
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a U.S. partnership with longtime foe Iran makes him uncomfortable but likened it to the United States working with Josef Stalin in World War II against Adolf Hitler. He says the United States has to do what it can to keep Baghdad from falling to insurgents.
An al-Qaida splinter group surprised Western intelligence organizations last week and took control at least two major Iraqi cities. Iran says it has no interest in a destabilized Iraq as its neighbor.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the USS George H.W. Bush from the northern Arabian Sea and it has arrived in the Persian Gulf as Obama considers possible military options for Iraq — although he has ruled out the possibility of putting American troops on the ground in Iraq. Kirby has said the move will give Obama additional flexibility if military action were required to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq.
Graham spoke to CNN’s “State of the Union” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler in Rancho Mirage, California, Lolita Baldor and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.