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Iraqi officials: army retakes Syria border crossing

Iraqi government forces make gains after days of heavy defeats to militants as Kerry pledges 'intense' support
The Iraqi army has tightened security in government-controlled parts of the country (AA)

The Iraqi army has fought back anti-government forces to regain control of a key border crossing into Syria, officers said late Monday.

The al-Waleed border crossing fell to Sunni militants briefly on Sunday, depriving Baghdad of its last outpost on its western border but the area is now official Iraqi security service control, Iraqi officers said. The Sunni forces controlling the border apparently did not resist the government counter offensive.

However, the two other official border posts between Iraq and Syria - al-Qaim and Rabia - remain still outside central government hands, AFP quoted a police colonel and major in the border guards as saying. Sunni forces opposed to the government control the first while Kurdish security forces from the country's autonomous northern region hold the second.

The reports come after a day of heavy fighting in Iraq, which has seen dozens killed in separate incidents across the country and Sunni forces make gains in the west, south and north of the country.

On Monday, anti-government forces seized the Shiite-majority northern town of Tal Afar and its airport, an official and witnesses said while also storming a border crossing with Jordan in the south. Maliki's security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta also admitted on that "hundreds" of soldiers had been killed in the fighting which flared up on 9 June. The televised announcement is the most specific information received thus far about the extent of government losses.

In just two weeks, a loose alliance of Sunni forces, spearheaded by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants, has managed to seize vast swaths of Iraq including the second city Mosul, prompting some 500,000 people to flee their homes in just a few days.

The sheer scale of the assault has pushed the US to pledge its assistance. US Secretary of State on Monday made a surprise visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi lawmakers.

In a statement following the meet, Kerry said that the US will provide Iraq with "intense" support against militants against this "existential threat."

The United States' "support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together, it will be effective," Kerry told journalists in Baghdad.

"It is a moment of decision for Iraq's leaders," Kerry said. "Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat."

Maliki was likewise quick to stress the urgency of the crisis telling Kerry that uprising "represents a threat not only to Iraq but to regional and international peace," his office said in a statement.

The US has already sent 300 advisors and a small force to guard its embassy in Baghdad but the prospect of further assistance in the form of air or drone strikes has been hotly debated in recent days.

After an initial delay, it was announced late on Monday that the 300 advisors will now be able to commence work as Iraq had offered legal guarantees to shield forces from prosecution.

Last week media reports emerged that US President Barack Obama would only consider a wider escalation in the form of air or drone strikes if Maliki stepped down. There has also been a growing chorus from US lawmakers on both sides of the isle, calling for Maliki to go.

"The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation," US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on Wednesday.

Senator John McCain, a Republican who has long blasted Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too early and undermining the US military surge that many credit with helping turn the tide in Iraq, also reportedly told Obama that he must "make [it] very clear to Maliki that his time is up."

Maliki has long been criticised for practicing sectarian politics and moving to disenfranchise Iraq’s Sunni minority which has formed the backbone of the backlash against Baghdad.

Washington has now called on other Arab states to bring pressure on Iraq's leaders to speed up government formation, which has made little headway since April elections, and has tried to convince them ISIL poses as much of a threat to them as to Iraq.

Kerry warned all countries, particularly in the Gulf, that "there is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIL."

"The United States would like to see the Iraqi people find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq," Kerry told reporters in Cairo on Sunday.