US President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White
House on the South Lawn in Washington. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
President Barack Obama has threatened US military strikes
in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of
the north to menace Baghdad and want to establish their own
state in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take
control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the troops of the
Shi'ite-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad's
allies both in the West and in neighbouring Shi'ite regional
"I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in
making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent
foothold in either Iraq or Syria," Obama said when asked
whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later
stressed that ground troops would not be sent in, however.
Obama said he was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's
leaders, who took full control when the US occupation ended
in 2011. "In our consultations with the Iraqis there will be
some short-term immediate things that need to be done
militarily," he said.
But he also referred to longstanding US complaints that
Shi'ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to do enough
to heal a sectarian rift that has left many in the big Sunni
minority, ousted from power when US troops overthrew Saddam
Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.
US Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Maliki by telephone on
Thursday. The White House signalled on Wednesday that it was
looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one
US official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.
With voters wary of renewing the costly military
entanglements of the past decade, Obama last year stepped
back from launching air strikes in Syria, where Sunni
militants from the same group - the Islamic State of Iraq and
the Levant (ISIL) - are also active. Fears of violence
spreading may increase pressure for international action,
however. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said
international powers "must deal with the situation".
In Mosul ISIL staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars
seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since its
fighters drove out of the desert and overran the northern
At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq's largest
refinery, underscoring the potential threat to the oil
industry, and residents near the Syrian border saw them
bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms - giving
physical form to the dream of reviving a Muslim caliphate
straddling both modern states.
At Mosul, which had a population close to 2 million before
recent events forced hundreds of thousands to flee, witnesses
saw ISIL fly two helicopters over the parade, apparently the
first time the militant group has obtained aircraft in years
of waging insurgency on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian
It was unclear who the pilots were, but Sunnis who served in
the forces of Saddam have rallied to the insurgency.
State television showed what it said was aerial footage of
Iraqi aircraft firing missiles at insurgent targets in Mosul.
The targets could be seen exploding in black clouds.
Further south, the fighters extended their lightning advance
to towns only about an hour's drive from the capital, where
Shi'ite militia are mobilising for a potential replay of the
ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006-2007.
Trucks carrying Shi'ite volunteers in uniform rumbled towards
the front lines to defend Baghdad.
The forces of Iraq's autonomous ethnic Kurdish north, known
as the peshmerga, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the
army, a spokesman said: "The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into
the hands of peshmerga," said peshmerga spokesman Jabbar
"No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now."
Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk and its huge oil
reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous
region, as their historic capital, and peshmerga units were
already present in an uneasy balance with government forces.
The swift move by their highly organised security forces to
seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden
advance by ISIL has redrawn Iraq's map - and potentially that
of the entire Middle East, where national borders were set
nearly a century ago as France and Britain carved up the
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters who do not recognise
the region's modern frontiers have seized Mosul and Tikrit,
Saddam's home town, and other towns and cities north of
The army has evaporated in the face of the onslaught,
abandoning bases and US-provided weapons. Online videos
showed purportedly a column of hundreds, possibly thousands,
of troops without uniforms being marched under guard near
Security and police sources said Sunni militants now
controlled parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 km (60 miles)
north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their
positions and withdrew towards the nearby town of Khalis.
"We are waiting for reinforcements, and we are determined not
to let them take control," said a police officer in Udhaim.
"We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to cut the main
highway that links Baghdad to the north."
ISIL and its allies took control of Falluja at the start of
the year. It lies just 50 km west of Maliki's office.
OIL PRICE SURGE
The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet later on
Thursday. Iraq's ambassador to France said it would call for
weapons and air support: "We need equipment, extra aviation
and drones," Fareed Yasseen said on French radio.
The Council "must support Iraq, because what is happening is
not just a threat for Iraq but the entire region".
The global oil benchmark jumped over 2 percent on Thursday,
as concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies
from the OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are
in the largely Shi'ite areas in the south and were "very,
very safe", oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.
ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the
main oil refinery that meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel.
Luaibi said the refinery itself was still in government hands
but late on Thursday police and an engineer inside the plant
said insurgents were surrounding it.
Militants have set up military councils to run the towns they
captured, residents said. "They came in hundreds to my town
and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek
reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general
to run the town," said a tribal figure from the town of Alam.
"'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle
will be there,' - that's what their leader kept repeating,"
Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the Sunni
militants from reaching the capital, which is itself divided
into Sunni and Shi'ite neighbourhoods and saw ferocious
sectarian street fighting in 2006-2007 under US occupation.
By midday on Thursday insurgents had not entered Samarra, the
next big city in their path on the Tigris north of Baghdad.
"The situation inside Samarra is very calm today, and I can't
see any presence of the militants. Life is normal here," said
Wisam Jamal, a government employee in the mainly Sunni city,
which also houses a major Shi'ite pilgrimage site.
The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States
at a cost of nearly $25 billion, is hobbled by low morale and
corruption. Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in
Sunni areas that it pursues the hostile interests of
The Obama administration had tried to keep a contingent of
troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to prevent a return of insurgents,
but failed to reach a deal with Maliki. A State Department
official said on Thursday that Washington was disappointed
after "a clear structural breakdown" of the Iraqi forces.
Iraq's parliament was meant to hold an extraordinary session
on Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but
failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian political
dysfunction that has paralysed decision-making in Baghdad.
The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk overturns a fragile balance of
power that has held Iraq together since Saddam's fall.
Iraq's Kurds have done well since 2003, running their own
affairs while being given a fixed percentage of the country's
overall oil revenue. But with full control of Kirkuk - and
the vast oil deposits beneath it - they could earn more on
their own, eliminating the incentive to remain part of a
Maliki's army already lost control of much of the Euphrates
valley west of the capital to ISIL last year, and with the
evaporation of the army in the Tigris valley to the north,
the government could be left with just Baghdad and areas
Iran, which funds and arms Shi'ite groups in Iraq, could be
brought deeper into the conflict, as could Turkey to the
north, also home to a big Kurdish minority. In Mosul, 80
Turks were held hostage by ISIL after Ankara's consulate
there was overrun.
Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a "conspiracy" and said
the security forces who had abandoned their posts would be
punished. In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it
had taken Mosul as part of a plan "to conquer the entire
state and cleanse it from the apostates" - meaning Shi'ites.
Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and
policemen after their seizure of some towns.
ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda's
international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant
Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in
In Syria, it controls swathes of territory, funding its
advances through taxing local businesses, seizing aid and
selling oil. In Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings
against Shi'ite civilians, killing hundreds a month.