Islamic State extremists made key gains, seizing a government compound in the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi hours after allegedly massacring dozens of civilians as they closed in on Syria’s ancient metropolis of Palmyra.
Women and children were among 23 people executed in cold blood outside Palmyra, monitoring groups said, as fears grew that advancing IS troops would destroy the ancient city renowned as a world heritage site.
Following the latest reported IS atrocity in Syria, jihadists raised their black flag over Ramadi’s government headquarters after launching a wide offensive using suicide car bombs that sent civilians fleeing the western city, edging closer to what would be their biggest victory in Iraq this year.
IS “now occupies the government centre in Ramadi and has also raised its flag over the police HQ for Anbar”, a police major told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The loss of the capital of Anbar province would be a major setback for Iraq’s government, which has struggled to gain the upper hand against the IS group in the region and Baiji, north of Baghdad, despite months of US-led bombing raids.
Iraq’s government said Ramadi had not fallen yet and a major counter-offensive was under way.
The jihadists already hold Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the capital of the neighbouring Nineveh province, and US Vice President Joe Biden on Friday pledged to expedite supplies to Iraqi forces in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The IS gains in Iraq came as rights groups reported the group had massacred 23 people as it advanced on Palmyra, and it now held positions within one kilometre (less than a mile) of the UNESCO world heritage site.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP IS fighters had “executed by gunfire 23 civilians, including nine children, in the village of Amiriyeh, north of Tadmor,” adding that relations of government officials were among those killed.
Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old desert oasis site known in Arabic as Tadmor, is one of Syria’s most prized historical gems and experts fear IS plans to destroy the city after it sacked the Iraqi archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra.
“It is our responsibility to alert the (UN) Security Council so that it will take strong decisions,” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said, adding that the world body was “very worried”.
– Syria war ‘heartbreaking’ –
Since the IS offensive in Anbar province began early Wednesday, more than 138 combatants — 73 soldiers and 65 jihadists — have been killed. There were also reports of at least 26 civilians executed by IS, the Observatory said.
The militant Islamists group has taken advantage of unrest in Syria — where a four-year civil war has killed more than 220,000 people — and Iraq to seize huge swathes of both countries, which it rules under its own harsh interpretation of Sharia law.
US President Barack Obama said Friday Syria would not likely see peace before he leaves office in early 2017 and reaffirmed his belief that there is no “military solution” to the conflict.
“The situation in Syria is heartbreaking but it’s extremely complex” Obama told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network, adding that “too often in the Middle East region, people attribute everything to the United States”.
Also on Friday, the chief of staff of the US command overseeing the American-led air war against the IS group, Brigadier General Thomas Weidley, said the jihadists remained “on the defensive” despite their seizure of Ramadi.
“We firmly believe Daesh is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” Weidley told reporters, using an alternative acronym for the IS group.
Meanwhile north of Baghdad, Iraqi troops were engaged in a difficult fight to hold onto the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji despite 165 US strikes against IS.
– ‘Pearl of the desert’ –
In Syria, the army pledged to send reinforcements to protect Palmyra, home to some 70,000 people including displaced Syrians who fled there after their home towns were engulfed in violence.
The governor of central Homs province, where the ancient city is located, said the situation was “under control”. “The army has sent reinforcements and it is bombing the (IS) positions from the air,” Talal Barazi said.
Palmyra is nicknamed “the pearl of the desert” and UNESCO describes it as a heritage site of “outstanding universal value”.
IS has destroyed numerous ancient sites in Iraq and Syria as it has advanced, and UNESCO’s Bokova said it was important to work “against extremism, against this strategy of eradicating… our collective memory”.
Syria’s opposition National Coalition said IS would be committing “a crime against civilisation” by destroying Palmyra, and accused the regime of not doing enough to protect the ancient city.
The historical metropolis stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations, and its first and second century temples and colonnaded streets mark a unique blend of Greco-Roman and Persian influences. It also houses a series of old and beautifully decorated tombs.
Since Syria’s conflict began four years ago, Palmyra has been looted and its architecture has already been damaged by clashes between rebels and the regime.
The country’s director of antiquities Maamoun Abdelkarim warned that Palmyra’s destruction would be “an international catastrophe” and urged efforts to protect the site.