BAGHDAD – As militants seize wide swaths of territory in Iraq, the specter of the sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart and the doubts that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion now haunt those trying decide how to blunt the lightning offensive.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who campaigned on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, will brief lawmakers at the White House on Wednesday on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized key northern cities in the Sunni heartland last week.
U.S. officials say imminent airstrikes remain unlikely, especially as Obama himself said last week any short-term military actions needs to accompany political changes by the government in Baghdad. Protests by Sunnis before the offensive targeted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and sparked the latest round of sectarian bloodshed, recalling nearly a decade ago when Baghdad woke virtually every morning to find dozens of bodies dumped in the streets, trash heaps or in the Tigris River, bullet-riddled or with torture marks.
Tuesday, at least 44 Sunni detainees were slaughtered by gun shots to the head and chest by pro-government Shiite militiamen after Sunni insurgents tried to storm the jail near Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, police said.
The Iraqi military gave a different account and put the death toll at 52, insisting that mortar shells killed the Sunni inmates in the attack late Monday on the facility.
In Baghdad, the bullet-riddled bodies of four men in their late 20s or early 30s, presumably Sunnis, were found Tuesday at different locations in the Shiite neighborhood of Benouk, police and morgue officials said.
Also Tuesday, a car bomb in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district killed 12 people and wounded 30 in a crowded outdoor market, police and hospital officials said. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, but attacks targeting Shiite districts are routinely the work of Sunni militants.
The police and medical officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with journalists.
In a move apparently designed to satisfy Obama's demand for political inclusion, Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders issued a joint statement late Tuesday stressing the importance of setting "national priorities" that adhere to democratic mechanisms in resolving divisions and condemning sectarian rhetoric.
But the Iraqi government also made a scathing attack on Saudi Arabia, accusing the Arab world's Sunni powerhouse of meddling in its affairs and acquiescing to terrorism. The harsh words came in response to a Saudi Cabinet statement blaming what it called "the sectarian and exclusionist policies in Iraq in recent years" for the latest violence.
The Sunni militants of the Islamic State have vowed to march to Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left. The three cities are home to some of the most revered Shiite shrines. The Islamic State has also tried to capture Samarra north of Baghdad, home to another major Shiite shrine.
Some 275 armed American forces are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure U.S. assets as Obama considers an array of options for combating the Islamic militants, including airstrikes or a contingent of special forces.
The White House has continued to emphasize that any military engagement remains contingent on the government in Baghdad enacting political reforms and ending sectarian tensions, which had been on the rise even before the Islamic State's incursion last week, with thousands killed since late last year.
Republicans have been critical of Obama's handling of Iraq, but Congress remains deeply divided over what steps the U.S. can take militarily. Even lawmakers who voted in 2002 to give President George W. Bush the authority to use military force to oust Saddam Hussein have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of drone airstrikes and worry about Americans returning to the fight in a country split by sectarian violence.
"Where will it lead and will that be the beginning or the end?" Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said, when asked about possible U.S. airstrikes. "We don't know that. This underlying conflict has been going on 1,500 years between the Shias and the Sunnis and their allies. And I think whatever we do, it's not going to go away."
During the United States' eight-year presence in Iraq, American forces acted as a buffer between the two Islamic sects, albeit with limited success. But U.S. forces fully withdrew at the end of 2011 when Washington and Baghdad could not reach an agreement to extend the American military presence there.
That Sunni-Shiite divide was on stark display in the accounts given by Iraqi Shiites fleeing the strategic city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border, which was captured by Sunni militants of the Islamic State Monday.
The advancing militants set Shiite homes ablaze and killed at least six Shiite men who were unable to leave, said Adek, a 26-year-old Shiite who fled to the Germawa camp in the largely-autonomous Kurdish area of Dohuk.
"If the (Sunni militants) stay in Tel Afar, the Shiites can't go back home, but the Sunnis can," said another Shiite resident, 37-year-old Maitham. Both men gave only their first names for fear of reprisals by the militants.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Diaa Hadid In Germawa, Iraq, and Julie Pace, Donna Cassata and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.