Iraq, Syria armies prepare counterattacks against ISIS amid massacre reports

Iraqi and Syrian armed forces prepared to launch two counterattacks against ISIS militants over the weekend after losing two key cities to the terror group last week.

Reuters reported that Iraqi forces launched a counterattack Saturday to retake the city of Ramadi in Anbar province. The reported offensive was backed by locally recruited Sunni tribal fighters and Shiite militiamen trained by Iran. A Sunni pro-government fighter told Reuters that his forces had retaken the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, about 6 miles east of Ramadi, though that had not been officially confirmed.

The U.S. has sought to reach out on its own to Sunni tribes and is training some Sunni fighters, but those efforts have been limited by the small number of American troops on the ground. On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that four airstrikes had been carried out near Ramadi by the U.S.-led coalition, destroying 19 armored vehicles.

Meanwhile, in Syria, a government official told the Associated Press Sunday that Damascus was deploying troops in areas near the ancient town of Palmyra in apparent preparation for a counterattack.

Gov. Talal Barazi of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, said ISIS members have "committed mass massacres in the city of Palmyra" since they captured it on Wednesday. He said ISIS fighters had taken many civilians, including women, to unknown destinations.

Activists in the town have said that ISIS fighters have hunted down President Bashar Assad's loyalist since taking the town, killing some 280 people.

Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi condemned what he called "a massacre" in Palmyra blaming Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for such killings because of their support for groups trying to remove Assad from power.

Al-Halqi called on the international community and all humanitarian organizations to pressure the governments that support "terrorism" to stop their support "as terrorism is posing a global danger." Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are main backers of Syrian rebels and opposition groups.

Barazi, the governor, said troops are fighting with ISIS gunmen in the nearby Jizl area. "There are plans, but we don't know when the zero hour for a military act in Palmyra," Barazi said without elaborating.

Meanwhile state-run news agency, SANA, said ISIS members are still preventing people from leaving Palmyra. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said that along with its partners they are preparing aid for some 11,000 people who fled Palmyra and surrounding villages.

A Facebook page used by ISIS to publish its statements posted a photo of 20 Syrian soldiers in uniform captured in Palmyra.

The capture of Palmyra has stoked fears that the militants might try to destroy one of the Middle East's most spectacular archaeological sites — a well-preserved, 2,000-year-old Roman-era city on the town's edge — as they have destroyed others in Syria and Iraq.

In Qatar, the European Union's foreign policy chief said the recent conquest of Palmyra and the Iraq city of Ramadi by ISIS only increases the need for greater political cooperation in the face of the militant threat.

"Only a political solution both in Syria and Iraq can provide a settlement for the crisis," Federica Mogherini said following a meeting between officials from the European Union and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah defended the role of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against ISIS. Qatar plays a supporting role in the coalition, allowing forces to use its vast al-Udeid air base.

"We cannot say that the coalition is failing. No, the coalition is not failing but we have always said that the air campaign is not enough," he said. "There are so many steps which we have to cooperate and coordinate together to make the campaign against terrorism effective."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.