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Associated Press
Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters deploy outside the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, on Sunday.

Rebels march on, alarm Iraq’s neighbors

– Al-Qaida-inspired rebels captured three more towns in the western Iraqi province of Anbar on Sunday, expanding their onslaught against crumbling Iraqi security forces deeper into the heart of the Middle East.

The latest conquests give the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant unchecked control of hundreds of miles of territory spanning the Iraqi-Syrian border, erasing the line drawn between the two countries by colonial powers.

The gains also put the militants within easy reach of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, U.S. allies that are among those in the region watching with alarm as the fighters rout Iraqi security forces and close in on Baghdad.

Reports that ISIL fighters had also seized a crossing post on the border with Jordan could not be independently confirmed. There was no indication that either Jordan or Saudi Arabia is under immediate threat from the fighters, whose recent offensives have focused on areas of Iraq and Syria that would form the nucleus of their proposed pan-Islamic state, modeled along the lines of the seventh-century Islamic caliphate.

The extremists appear to be circling back east in the direction of the capital along the Euphrates River valley, territory that was fiercely fought over by U.S. troops confronting a milder version of these fighters in the past decade.

The stunning speed with which a few thousand lightly armed ISIL fighters have seized control of large portions of the country in the past two weeks has raised fears that the entire state of Iraq could soon collapse, prompting appeals from the Iraqi government for U.S. support in the form of airstrikes.

The first of as many as 300 U.S. troops dispatched by President Barack Obama to advise the Iraqi security forces are expected to arrive within the coming days. But the Obama administration has indicated that it is not willing to offer more robust help unless the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose divisive policies are blamed for much of the current chaos, is replaced.

On Sunday, Iraq’s powerful neighbor Iran indicated that it is not prepared to acquiesce in such a change, dampening any lingering expectations of U.S.-Iranian collaboration in Iraq. Comments by Iranian leaders and by Secretary of State John Kerry early last week triggered speculation that the two rivals might work together to stabilize the country.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, slammed U.S. policies in Iraq as “interference” on Sunday and made clear that Shiite Iran does not support American plans to find a new leader.

“We don’t support any foreign interference in Iraq, and we’re strongly opposed to U.S. interference there,” Khamenei said at an event with members of Iran’s judiciary.

In a clear reference to U.S. hopes of replacing Maliki, Khamenei also accused Washington of wanting to “dominate Iraq and have its agents rule over the country.”

Speaking in Cairo, Kerry on Sunday rejected the inference, stressing that the United States “is not engaged in picking or choosing or advocating” Iraqi leaders. He pointed, however, to the many expressions of dissatisfaction with Maliki from the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, as well as from some Shiites.