By Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin

New York Times News Service

Obama sees sectarian fix to Iraq conflict

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — As President Barack Obama weighs airstrikes against marauding militants in Iraq, he has concluded that any U.S. military action must be conditioned on a political plan to try to heal Iraq’s sectarian rifts, a senior administration official said on Sunday.

While Obama has ordered unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq to gather intelligence for possible strikes on militant positions, the official said, the White House’s emphasis, when Obama returns to Washington today from a weekend in Southern California, will be on prodding Iraq’s leaders to form a new national unity government.

The U.S., this official said, has asked Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to work with the Kurds, to seek to persuade the disaffected Sunni minority that the next government will be an “ally not an adversary” and to invest in Iraq’s depleted army. All three groups must be adequately represented in Baghdad, he said.

The president’s two-track response, the official said, stems from his belief that military strikes on radical Sunni militants, absent parallel measures to reform Iraq’s government, will simply hand the country over to competing Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni fighters, and a future of unending sectarian strife.

The White House believes it has a brief window to pursue diplomacy, this official said, because after a week of surprising advances across Iraq’s Sunni-dominated north and west, the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now faces more motivated Iraqi troops and fiercely motivated Shiite militias, defending the gates of Baghdad.

But it is unclear how far the Iraqis would need to go in establishing a multi-sectarian government that would satisfy the Obama administration. Deep sectarian divisions have persisted since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.

On Sunday, reflecting U.S. concerns about the militant advance, the State Department said it plans to evacuate some of its personnel from the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Jordan and consulates in more secure cities in Iraq. Most of the staff will remain in Baghdad.

Obama’s push for political reconciliation has put him in a potential alignment with Iran, a Shiite backer of the al-Maliki government. On Sunday, Iranian officials echoed Obama’s admonition to al-Maliki that he needed to be more inclusive of the Sunnis to quell the insurgency.

— New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD — Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants on Sunday claimed that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come.

Even as anecdotal reports of extrajudicial killings around the country seemed to bear out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s intent to kill Shiites wherever it could, Iraqi officials and some human rights groups cautioned that the militants’ claim to have killed 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit could not be immediately verified.

But with their claim, the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus, Syria, last year.

In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants’ sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group’s stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region.

The sectarian element of the killings, and reports late Sunday that the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, had also fallen, may put more pressure on the Obama administration to aid Iraq militarily. In fact, the militants seemed to be counting on it. A pronouncement on Sunday by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had a clear message for the United States: “Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day.”

The group’s announcement was made in a series of gruesome photographs uploaded to an the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Twitter feed and on websites late Saturday night. Some showed insurgents, many wearing black masks, lining up at the edges of what looked like shallow mass graves and apparently firing their weapons into young men who had their hands bound behind their backs and were packed closely together in large groups.

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. The numbers of victims who could be seen in any one of the pictures numbered no more than about 60 and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves.

The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to stoke anger and fear among Shiites. “The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” one read. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” read another, and, “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” referring to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.