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Kerry: No 'boots on the ground' in Iraq

| Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 9:27 p.m.

BEIRUT — Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that the United States is ready to help Iraq in any way it can as it began a major offensive to wrest control from al-Qaida-linked militants — short of a return of American forces.

Kerry described the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, as “the most dangerous players” in the region, as the group extends its influence across Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. But as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's forces launched airstrikes and clashed with the group's militants in Anbar, where ISIS has seized control of the province's two principal cities, Kerry said it was Iraq's battle to fight.

ISIS, formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq but renamed to reflect the group's expanded ambitions, has been asserting control in Iraq and Syria in recent months, and claimed its first operation in Lebanon last week.

Though it is facing a backlash in Syria, losing ground to rival rebel groups on Sunday, ISIS's gains in Iraq present a critical test to Maliki's Shiite-led government. They leave the Obama administration facing criticism over the way it handled the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq two years ago, when a plan to leave a residual security force fell apart during the negotiations.

A string of bombings in the Iraqi capital killed at least 20 people on Sunday. In the Anbar city of Ramadi, government airstrikes killed 25 militants, according to Reuters. In Fallujah, captured by ISIS on Friday, Iraqi forces had encircled the city, poised for an assault.

“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said at the end of a visit to Jerusalem. “We are not, obviously, contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we're going to help them in their fight.”

Kerry didn't give details of what assistance the United States might provide but said it would do “everything that is possible.”

A local journalist in Fallujah said the Iraqi army was shelling militant positions but civilian areas also had been hit.

“It is back to the same as it was in 2004,” said the journalist, who did not wish to be identified for safety reasons. He was referring to the year coalition forces began two infamous assaults on the city, exposing U.S. troops to some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War.

“Before 2004, there was only one cemetery in Fallujah. Afterwards, there were four cemeteries,” the journalist said. “Now the people fear there will be eight cemeteries.”

About 9,000 residents had evacuated to nearby towns, the journalist said.

An Iraqi military commander said it would take two to three days to expel militants from the two cities. Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Anbar Military Command, said pro-government Sunni tribes are leading the operations while the army is offering only aerial cover and logistics on the ground, the Associated Press reported.

ISIS's tightened grip on Anbar gives it a swath of land straddling the Syrian border. “This is a fight that is bigger than just Iraq,” Kerry said. “The rise of these terrorists in the region, and particularly in Syria and through the fighting in Syria, is part of what is unleashing this instability in the rest of the region.”

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