BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN, June 23, 2014) — As radical Sunni militants snatch city after city in their march to Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq on Monday during the country’s tensest time since the U.S. withdrawal of troops.
He’ll meet with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the man some say needs to step down.
With al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government losing more ground to militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Kerry has implored the leader to rise above “sectarian motivations” to become more inclusive and more representative of its population.
Kerry will also meet with Iraq’s foreign minister as well as both Shiite and Sunni leaders.
His trip will “emphasize our highest-level commitment to Iraq during this time of crisis,” a State Department official said.
Kerry will also speak with key leaders about forming a new government “in line with the constitutional timeline that they’re on.”
But outside the rooms of high-level talks, parts of Iraq are falling by the day. Here’s the latest on the crisis that is spilling far beyond Iraq’s borders:
Dozens of prisoners, several police officers killed
At least 71 prisoners and five police officers were killed Monday when militants attacked an Iraqi police convoy transferring inmates from one prison to another, police said.
Five militants were also killed. It was not immediately clear whether ISIS was behind the attack.
The convoy was headed from Hilla, a predominately Shiite city south of Baghdad, to another prison north of the city. Police did not provide further details about the attack.
ISIS captures even more ground
ISIS militants continued their violent march toward Baghdad over the weekend from both the north and the west. At least 70% of Anbar province is now under the control of ISIS, two security officials in the region told CNN.
ISIS is on a mission to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.
They’ve taken over not just the Tal Afar airbase in northern Iraq, but also the entire town of Tal Afar, officials said.
The fighters also seized the western Anbar town of Rutba, 113 kilometers (70 miles) from the borders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, security sources in Baghdad and Anbar told CNN on Sunday.
Then there’s Qaim. After ISIS captured the city along the Syrian border on Saturday, the militants now enjoy a stronghold and a number of other towns in Anbar province. And that means fighters now have a direct line to the western outskirts of Baghdad.
Sharia law spreads
One of ISIS’ biggest victories came when it took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, earlier this month. On Sunday, witnesses said militants took the capture one step further when ISIS members paraded around the city in vehicles, announcing on loudspeakers that it has decided to form Islamic Sharia courts in Mosul.
Sharia law covers both religious and non-religious aspects of life, and ISIS has begun imposing Sharia law in the towns it controls.
Boys and girls must be separated at school. Women must wear the niqab or full veil in public. Music is banned, and fasting is enforced during Ramadan.
The military denies huge losses
But Iraq’s military says it’s not losing as much ground to ISIS as some may think. The military actually made a “strategic withdrawal” in some areas, spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta told reporters.
He said the withdrawals were part of a campaign to “open all these fronts so we can strengthen our positions.” But Atta did not detail the specific locations.
Two security officials told CNN that Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Haditha, about 270 kilometers (about 168 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
But even if some withdrawals were strategic, it’s unclear when or how Iraqi forces could retake ares now in the hands of well-armed ISIS fighters.
The military said it has fought back against militants with airstrikes. Officials showed reporters footage of airstrikes they said took place in Tal Afar.
Atta said the video showed a “large number of ISIS forces fleeing these strikes” that left up to 50 people dead.
Recruiting stations get pummeled
Apparently those trying to join Iraqi forces are at risk before the even enlist.
In the Shiite-dominated city of Hillah, south of Baghdad, at least four people were killed in a shelling attack on a recruiting station. Another 34 people were wounded.
Hundreds of predominantly Shiite men came to the recruiting station to answer a call to arms to protect Iraq.
U.S. sends more help
The U.S. will have a greater presence in Iraq aside from Kerry’s visit this week. About 300 U.S. military advisers will arrive in Iraq, a senior defense official said. They will not be deployed all at once.
In addition, some U.S. military personnel already at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will be reassigned and become advisers, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
But U.S. President Barack Obama said there’s only so much the United States can do.
“Part of the task now is to see whether Iraqi leaders are prepared to rise above sectarian motivations, come together, compromise,” Obama told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.
“If they can’t, there’s not going to be a military solution to this problem. There’s no amount of American firepower that’s going to be able to hold the country together, and I’ve made that very clear to Mr. Maliki and all the other leadership inside of Iraq.”