An Iraqi federal policeman searches a man at a checkpoint in Baghdad. (Karim Kadim / AP)
Baghdad — Sunni militants have blitzed through the vast desert of western Iraq, capturing four towns and three border crossings and deepening the predicament of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad led by Nouri al-Maliki.
The latest military victories — including two border posts captured Sunday, one along the frontier with Jordan and the other with Syria — considerably expanded territory under the militants’ control just two weeks after the al-Qaida breakaway group began swallowing up chunks of northern Iraq, heightening pressure on al-Maliki to step aside.
The lightening offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant takes the group closer to its dream of carving out an Islamic state straddling both Syria and Iraq.
If the Sunni insurgents succeed in their quest to secure an enclave, they could further unsettle the already volatile Middle East and serve as a magnet for Jihadists from around the world — much like al-Qaida attracted extremists in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama, in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” aired Sunday, warned that the Islamic State could grow in power and destabilize the region. Washington, he said, must remain “vigilant” but would not “play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops … wherever these organizations pop up.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in the Jordanian capital on Sunday, also weighed in. The Islamic State, he warned, is a “threat not only to Iraq, but to the entire region.”
On Sunday news shows, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and former Vice President Dick Cheney exchanged criticism over U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Potential presidential candidate Paul said he doesn’t blame the war on the Obama administration but “on the chaos that is in the Middle East. I also blame those who are for the Iraq War for emboldening Iran. These are the same people now who are petrified of what Iran may become.”
Cheney said Sunday he was a strong supporter of going into Iraq during the George W. Bush administration and remains so now. Cheney dismissed Paul as an “isolationist” who “doesn’t believe we ought to be involved in that part of the world.”