(CNN) – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush into the Persian Gulf as violence continues in Iraq.
The order gives U.S. President Barack Obama “additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
The Norfolk-based USS Truxtun and the USS Philippine Sea will join the Bush in the Gulf. The group is expected to arrive late Saturday.
Iraq’s military claimed Saturday that it had regained key northern territories from extremist Sunni Muslim militants and asserted it remained strong and capable against the radicals who have suddenly destabilized the country, a military spokesman said.
Most of Salaheddin province has returned to the control of Iraqi military, and security forces also took back territory on the edges of Nineveh province, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said.
But his account conflicted with security officials in Baghdad and Samarra who told CNN that 60% to 70% of Salaheddin province remains in control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the extreme Sunni group. It also controls an oil refinery in Baiji, officials said.
Battle in the north
As world concern grows about whether the extremists will march through the northern provinces to take over Baghdad, Atta asserted Saturday that Iraqi troops along with volunteer fighters now control several towns north of the capital: Ishaqi, Balad and al Dulwayiha.
“We emphasize that the circulation and incitement of rumors should be prohibited. This is the means which terrorists use to weaken the morale of soldiers and civilians,” said Atta, who also accused the media of false reporting.
Atta said the capital was safe Saturday.
“The security situation in Baghdad is completely stable.” Atta said. “The situation in Samarra is completely stable, and the troops are prepared for any terrorist plans.”
But conflicting reports emerged Saturday concerning security in the town of al-Dhuluiya, in Salaheddin province, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Iraqi capital.
Government officials and state TV said Saturday that Iraqi security forces had taken control of the town, but security officials in nearby Samarra and witnesses there told CNN that the town is still under ISIS control.
Samarra is significant to Iraq’s Shiites for its al-Askari shrine, and the Sunnis of ISIS have threatened to destroy any shrine they deem un-Islamic.
The commanders of Samarra and the Diyala province are “holding strong and their morale is high, and there are important operations and victories taking place,” Atta said.
The military’s victory claims were announced Saturday as Iraq’s government scrambled to rally the military and recruit volunteer fighters to combat the advance of ISIS.
The militants from ISIS want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region — stretching from Iraq into northern Syria, where it has had significant success battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Their lightning advance in Iraq has been aided by support from many Sunnis who feel that the Shia-dominated government has marginalized them.
Addressing military commanders in the town of Samarra, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to put new fire in his troops’ bellies.
“Samarra will be the starting point, the gathering station of our troops to cleanse every inch that was desecrated by footsteps of those traitors,” he said in remarks made Friday but first broadcast Saturday.
ISIS seized Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, earlier this week and have threatened to march on the capital, Baghdad.
Although they have not yet delivered on that threat, the militants’ rapid advance — and the total collapse of Iraq’s security forces in the face of their assault on Mosul — has rocked the government and alarmed its international allies, including the United States.
Obama continues to mull his options in light of the militants’ lightning advance — but has ruled out putting U.S. troops on the ground.
A senior security official in Baghdad told CNN on Friday that in recent days, Iran has sent about 500 Revolutionary Guard troops to fight alongside Iraqi government security forces in Diyala province.
However, Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, have denied the reports that some of its elite forces are in Iraq to help bolster al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite.
Amid the conflicting reports, a U.S. official told CNN that the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was in Iraq this week.
While the exact details of what he was doing are unclear, he was believed to have been offering advice about how to stop the march of ISIS militants, the official said, on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the latest U.S. intelligence.
While leaders from Iran and the United States both want to see the militants thwarted, the U.S. State Department said Friday there were no discussions between the two countries about the situation in Iraq. The Suleimani visit was first reported by the New York Times.
Al-Maliki: Beginning of end for ISIS
In Samarra, the Iraqi Prime Minister said thousands of Iraqis volunteers had stepped forward to fight against the militants.
“They (ISIS) believed that this is the beginning of the end, but we say, this is the beginning of their end, their defeat, because it sparked the passion and determination in all soldiers and officers, and in all Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said.
The Prime Minister blamed the collapse of Iraqi security forces in the northern city of Mosul and elsewhere on confusion resulting from conspiracy and collusion, but also warned that all deserters would be held accountable.
Footage from Baghdad on Saturday showed volunteers climbing into buses outside an Iraqi army recruiting center in the city.
A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, added his voice Friday to calls for volunteers to join with the security forces and fight back against ISIS.
At the same time, Sunni tribal leaders have lined up in support of ISIS, making their push toward Baghdad easier, a Saudi intelligence official told CNN’s Nic Robertson.
Rouhani: We will consider request for help
In his address Saturday, marking a year since he took office, Rouhani dismissed any notion that Iranian forces are deployed in support of Iraq’s government.
“If the Iraqi government wants us to help, we will consider it,” Rouhani said, according to an English translation of his remarks in Farsi by state-run Press TV.
But, he said, “so far they have not asked specifically for help,” and added that Iran could give strategic guidance if requested.
“Involvement of Iranian forces so far has not been raised,” he said. “From Day One when the Islamic Republic was established, we have not done this in any country — to have our military forces conduct military operations in another country.”
“We have made our position clear. We are not involved in fighting in Iraq,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told CNN on Friday.
A senior Iranian government official told CNN that Tehran is monitoring the situation in Iraq and could send advisers there, but would not send a fighting force.
Obama: Won’t happen overnight
In a statement delivered Friday at the White House, Obama said the United States “will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” but that he would be reviewing a range of other options in coming days.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” the President said, adding that unless Iraq fixes its internal political problems, short-term military help from the United States won’t make much difference.
Pressure for the United States to provide military support to Iraq’s struggling government has increased, with conservative Republicans blaming Obama for creating a security vacuum in 2011 by pulling out U.S. troops.
At the time of the U.S. drawdown, Iraq’s leadership had agreed that a residual U.S. military presence was desirable, but the talks broke down over the prickly issue of legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Obama administration had said any deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline would require a guarantee of legal protection for American soldiers. But the Iraqis refused to agree to that, opening up the prospect of American troops being tried in Iraqi courts and subjected to Iraqi punishment.
Critics also say that Obama’s unwillingness to provide significant military backing to opposition forces in Syria’s civil war has contributed to the ability of ISIS to attack in Iraq.
Obama, however, resists getting drawn into fighting there after ending the nine-year U.S. military involvement that began under former President George W. Bush.
Obama said the only guarantee of success involved political reforms by al-Maliki that promoted cooperation with Sunnis.
He also blamed Iraq’s political dysfunction for the failure of its troops to fight off the ISIS advance from the north to within about 60 miles of Baghdad on Friday, noting that there has been no shortage of U.S. help in terms of equipment and training.
Commander tells of abandoning post
An Iraqi army commander who was in charge of a battalion of about 600 men told CNN how he had abandoned his post in northern Iraq after being alerted that ISIS fighters were pushing through.
The commander, who asked for the location where he was based not to be disclosed, said his soldiers had been instructed by brigade headquarters immediately to abandon their positions, grab what weapons they could and move toward the headquarters.
They did so, he said, leaving behind heavy weaponry and vehicles, including Humvees — and with the ISIS militants hot on their heels. When they reached the headquarters, it was already overrun by ISIS.
The commander said his unit was predominantly Sunni, as is the population in that part of the country — and they had no desire to fight for the predominantly Shia government of al-Maliki. ISIS has the support of the people, he said.
He predicted that if ISIS were to enter Baghdad, any Sunni soldiers there would defect, leaving only troops of Shia origin to fight alongside Shiite militia groups, some of which were involved in the bloody sectarian strife that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Northern areas under ISIS control
Security officials in Baghdad said Saturday that ISIS was in control of several areas in northern Iraq: Tikrit, the capital of Salaheddin; Baiji and its oil refinery; and al-Doura.
Iraqi security and air forces targeted parts of those areas, but their operations haven’t included sending troops there, Iraqi security officials said.
At the same time, three towns in eastern Diyala province — al-Asriya, Hamreen and Askari — were taken over Friday by ISIS fighters, police officials in Baquba said.
Dozens of ISIS militants also clashed with Iraqi security forces in Um Garami village, about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, the police officials said, but they were eventually pushed back.
Samarra authorities on Saturday found the bodies of 12 police officers dumped in an orchard in Ishaqi, police officials said. The bodies were shot and burned in al-Basateen area in Ishaqi, a predominantly Sunni town about 62 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
ISIS took Ishaqi on Thursday, but on Saturday Iraqi security forces regained control of the town, police said.
Police believe that ISIS fighters killed the police officers, but an investigation is ongoing.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday expressed alarm over the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country, citing reports of summary executions and extrajudicial killings.
While the number of civilian casualties is not yet confirmed, she said, “reports suggest the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, and the number of wounded is said to be approaching 1,000.”
She also cited reports that ISIS fighters had summarily executed Iraqi army soldiers during their stunning takeover of Mosul on Tuesday.
More than 500,000 people fled the fighting in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million, the International Organization for Migration said.