BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government said Sunday Sunni militants had taken control of a major Iraqi post on the Syrian border, strengthening their ability to move men and supplies into Iraq's heartland.
As the government tried to cast the setback in a positive light, saying troops had made a "tactical" decision to withdraw, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to increase the pressure on Iraq's leadership by signaling that the United States was open to the selection of a new prime minister who could bridge the deep sectarian divides in the country.
"The United States would like to see the Iraqi people find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq," Kerry said Sunday in Cairo, at the start of a Middle East trip to rally Arab support on the Iraq
The formal U.S. position, which Kerry underscored at a news conference with Egypt's foreign minister, is the United States is not in the business of picking Iraq's leaders. But without mentioning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by name, Kerry noted the Kurds, Sunnis and some Shiites had registered unhappiness with Iraq's leadership, as has Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the influential Shiite spiritual leader who has spoken out about the need to avoid the mistakes of the past.
On Sunday, Gen. Qassim Atta, a top military spokesman, acknowledged in a briefing Iraqi army troops had left the al-Qaim border post near the Syrian border as well as the towns of Rawaa and Ana, but the units would be fighting the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant elsewhere.
"As a tactical procedure," Atta said, "the security forces in Rawaa, Ana and Qaim have withdrawn from these areas to reinforce other troops in other areas."
There were also unconfirmed reports Sunday evening government forces had fled from Al Waleed, the last post at the Syrian border remaining in the army's hands. Frightened police officers, reached by telephone, said the army had already left and police scattered when the militants arrived in trucks. Some police officers crossed the border into Syria, if they had family there, and others stayed on the Iraqi side, a police source said.
The militants seem intent on consolidating their hold on the large Sunni provinces to the west and north as the Iraqi army focuses on securing Baghdad, the capital.
The militants already have considerable strength in Anbar province, mainly in remote villages and towns, though they have also seized Fallujah. Now, with the taking of the al-Qaim border post and nearby towns, they will be able to move on the road that leads to the city of Haditha, where there is a major dam. On Sunday, the government was reinforcing its troops there.
Atta did not say whether the army had fought in the small western town of Rutba, but local officials there said ISIL militants arrived late Saturday, burned the police station and clashed briefly with the police before taking control of the town.
Ratif al-Ubaid, a member of the Rutba local council, said about 50 vehicles filled with militants and their weapons had arrived in the town and engaged in sporadic clashes with the police.
"They left a group to secure the town and then headed toward the border," he added.
During the al-Qaim battle, it appeared that 70 volunteers who had left Baghdad to join the fighting on the side of the Iraqi army were killed in an ambush. They were traveling in food freezer trucks as camouflage, but it seemed the militants knew they were on their way, a police officer said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. The militants have allowed him to remain in his job, he said.
It was unclear how many Iraqi army soldiers had been killed in the fight.
In Diyala province, the struggle for power between the ISIL militants and local Sunni militants, some of them former military officers under Saddam Hussein, continued Sunday. ISIL fighters killed three brothers of one of the leaders of the Islamic army and destroyed the houses of fighters in that group as well as of the Men of Naqshbandia, former Saddam loyalists.