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UN moves to safeguard staff as Iraq violence swells

UNITED NATIONS -- UN officials scrambled to keep staff members in Iraq out of harm's way Tuesday as an insurgent group that burst into northern Iraq from the civil war in Syria captured swaths of the country, killing soldiers and civilians in a wave of violence advancing toward Baghdad.

The mortal threat from the Sunni-led Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida offshoot, is so severe that President Barack Obama is mulling military options, including use of drones and, perhaps most tellingly, appears open to coordinating efforts to stop the group with a longtime adversary: Iran.

Already, the Obama administration has sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and Shia-led Iran has dispatched special forces into Iraq in an effort to help embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to reports.

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to work with Iran to buttress Iraq, Iran's Shia ally, but rejects Iran's military support for its other major Shia ally: Syria.

One UN official said the circumstances on the ground suggest the interconnected conflicts in Syria and Iraq are on the verge of sparking a regional war. Other observers have said that Syria, in its fourth year of an escalating war with no end in sight, could devolve into a failed state and that Iraq could be split into three separate states.

Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that more staffers had been relocated from the UN's Baghdad headquarters, adding to the 58 personnel who were moved on Monday from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan.

Haq said the staff was likely to be moved eventually from Amman to Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report Tuesday that concluded that violence in Syria has reached unprecedented levels. That conflict gave birth to the crisis in Iraq as insurgent fighters from Syria poured into Iraq prompting Washington and Tehran to weigh in, all key ingredients for a regional war.

"Perpetrators of crimes had no fear or thought of consequence," the group's chair, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said while presenting the report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday. "Impunity had made its home inside Syria . . . People were tortured to death inside detention centers in Damascus, men were beheaded in public squares in Al Raqqah, women lived with the scars of sexual abuse, and children were recruited and used as members of fighting forces."

Pinheiro, who said the report was based on 3,000 interviews, also said the perpetrators of violence have been emboldened by the lack of a clear consensus in the Security Council.

"The international community, and specifically the Security Council, had yet to demand accountability for the crimes that were being committed daily against the Syrian people," he said. "Through their inaction, a space had been created for the worst of humanity to express itself and it had done so."

Ban on Tuesday reiterated his statement over the weekend condemning ISIL's reported slaughter of dozens of Iraqi soldiers. The men were captured, tied up and shot en masse.

The group's momentum has picked up since it entered Iraq via the country's northern border with Syria and progressed in a southeasterly direction, capturing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and others, including Tikrit and Fallujah.

"I am deeply concerned about the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq, including the reports of mass summary executions by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," Ban said in Geneva on Tuesday. "There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders. I encourage all Iraqi leaders -- political, military, religious and community -- to ensure that their followers avoid acts of reprisal and come together in an inclusive spirit to address this serious threat to the country . . . It is imperative that all regional actors, and all those with influence over the Syrian parties, work together in favor of a peaceful, political solution."

Meanwhile, Ban has not yet named a successor to his former envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was tasked with arranging the Syria peace conference in Geneva. Brahimi left his post on May 31.

But he said the new developments in Iraq and Syria make the appointment more urgent.

"We have been taking stock during the last few weeks and we are now accelerating this process in searching for any possible candidates," he said in Geneva.

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