BAGHDAD/IRBIL: Barack Obama threatened U.S. military strikes in Iraq Thursday against ISIS militants who have surged out of the north to menace Baghdad and want to establish their own state in Iraq and Syria.
The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile demanded urgent inclusive dialogue in Iraq and condemned “terrorist” activities, but stopped short of mulling action against fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
The Security Council met for two hours behind closed doors and was briefed by the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, who said he did not see an immediate danger of the violence spreading to Baghdad.
In Iraq, Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the troops of the Shiite-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad’s allies both in the West and in neighboring regional power Iran.
ISIS militants also seized two strategic areas of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad after security forces withdrew, officers said, bringing the militants closer to the provincial capital Baqouba.
Jalawla and Saadiyah are the latest areas to fall to a lightning three-day offensive that has swept down from northern Iraq, overrunning all of one province and significant parts of three others.
“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,” President Obama said when asked whether he was contemplating airstrikes. But officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.Obama said he was looking at “all options” to help Iraq’s leaders, who took full control when the U.S. 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 added.
But he also referred to longstanding U.S. complaints that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri 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 U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Maliki by telephone and said Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate support for Iraq’s security in the face of advances by ISIS.
In Mosul, ISIS 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 metropolis. In the city, which had a population close to 2 million before recent events forced hundreds of thousands to flee, witnesses saw ISIS 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 frontier.
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.
At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq’s largest refinery, underscoring the potential threat to the oil industry.
Further south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour’s drive from the capital, where Shiite militia are mobilizing for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006-07.
Trucks carrying Shiite volunteers in uniform rumbled toward the front lines to defend Baghdad.
The forces of Iraq’s autonomous 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 Yawar. “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.
Security and police sources said Sunni militants now controlled parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 km north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions and withdrew toward 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.”
ISIS and its allies took control of Fallujah at the start of the year. It lies just 50 km west of Maliki’s office.
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 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,” he said.
Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the militants from reaching the capital, which is divided into Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006-07 under U.S. occupation.
The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by Washington 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 Shiites.
Iraq’s parliament was meant to hold an extraordinary session to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian political dysfunction that has paralyzed decision-making in Baghdad.