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ISIS threat expected to last decades

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 8:51 p.m.
REUTERS
Shi'ite volunteers patrol the area as they secure it against the predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in the desert region between Kerbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad, July 3, 2014. Iraqi insurgents are preparing for an assault on Baghdad, with sleeper cells planted inside the capital to rise up at 'Zero Hour' and aid fighters pushing in from the outskirts, according to senior Iraqi and U.S. security officials. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

IRBIL, Iraq — Iraq appeared closer to its long-predicted disintegration Thursday as Kurdish leaders ordered steps to hold a referendum “as soon as possible” on self-rule for their oil-rich territory and Islamist extremists improved their military position by seizing additional territory across the border in Syria.

U.S. military officials, offering their first public assessment of the situation, said it will take decades to subdue the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which seized Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, on June 10, then raced southward 200 miles, coming to within an hour's drive of Baghdad before its advance was halted. On Sunday, it declared an Islamic caliphate on the land it controls in Syria and Iraq.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that ISIS' rapid advance had “stretched” its resources. Still, he said he believed that the world community would have to wrestle with the organization for “a generation or two.”

He labeled as “bleak” the possibility of a united Iraq unless there is reconciliation between Sunni Arabs, who have supported the Islamic State's advances, and majority Shiite Arabs, who run the country's government. Dempsey said Iraq's political leaders, an apparent reference to embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have to find a way “to separate Sunnis” from ISIS, with whom they've partnered “because they have zero confidence in the ability of Iraq's politicians to govern.”

He said the United States' first task “is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in.”

“If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak,” Dempsey said.

But it was what took place in Irbil that was most likely to cement Iraq's eventual partition into regions along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, buoyed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public support for independence, took the first legal steps toward holding a referendum on self-rule, telling the regional Parliament to pass a bill setting up an election commission “as soon as possible.”

“We have international support for independence, and those who do not support us do not oppose us,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi insurgents are said to be preparing for an assault on Baghdad, with sleeper cells planted inside the capital to rise up at “Zero Hour” and aid fighters pushing in from the outskirts, Iraqi officials told Reuters.

A high-level Iraqi security official estimated there were 1,500 sleeper cell members hibernating in western Baghdad and 1,000 on the outskirts.

He said their goal was to penetrate the U.S.-made “Green Zone” — a fortified government enclave.

“There are so many sleeper cells in Baghdad,” the official said. “They will seize an area and won't let anyone take it back... In western Baghdad, they are ready and prepared.”

The government says it is rounding up members of sleeper cells, but some Sunni residents say the crackdown is being used to intimidate them.

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