U.S. President Barack Obama threatened military strikes against
the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Thursday,
highlighting the gravity of ISIL's threat to redraw borders in an
oil-rich region with the risk of any new entity turning into a
launch-pad for attacks on Western interests.
In the spreading chaos, Iraqi Kurdish forces seized control of
Kirkuk - an oil hub just outside their autonomous enclave that they
have long seen as their traditional capital - as Iraqi government
troops abandoned posts in panic over ISIL's advance.
Thrusting further to the southeast after their lightning seizure of
the major Iraqi city of Mosul in the far north and the late dictator
Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, ISIL entered two towns in
Diyala province bordering Iran.
Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the Sunni Muslim insurgents after
government troops fled their positions, along with several villages
around the Himreen mountains that have long been a hideout for
militants, security sources said .
The Iraqi army fired artillery shells at Saadiyah and Jalawla from
the nearby town of Muqdadiya, sending dozens of families fleeing
towards Khaniqin near the Iranian border.
Obama said on Thursday he was considering "all options" to support
Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-dominated central government that took full
control when the U.S. occupation ended in 2011, eight years after
the invasion that toppled Saddam.
"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 at the White House, when asked whether he
was contemplating air strikes.
"In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term
immediate things that need to be done militarily," he said. A U.S.
defense official said the United States had been flying surveillance
drones over Iraq to help it fight ISIL.
U.S. officials later said that U.S. ground forces would not return
But Obama said military action alone was no panacea against ISIL. He
alluded to long-standing Western complaints that Shi'ite Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki has done little to heal sectarian rifts that
have left many of Iraq's minority Sunnis, cut out of power since
Saddam's demise, aggrieved and keen for revenge.
"This should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government. There
has to be a political component to this," Obama said.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden assured Maliki by telephone that
Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate its security
support. The White House had signaled on Wednesday it was looking to
strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one U.S. official said
were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.
But fears of jihadist violence spreading may increase pressure for
robust international action. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
said international powers "must deal with the situation".
In Mosul, ISIL staged a parade of American Humvee patrol vehicles
seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since its
fighters drove out of the desert and overran the city.
Giving a hint of their vision of a caliphate, ISIL published Sharia
rules for the territory they have carved out in northern Iraq,
including a ban on drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and an edict on women
to wear only all-covering, shapeless clothing.
ISIL militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen
after their seizure of some towns.
On Friday, ISIL said it was giving soldiers and policemen a "chance
to repent ... For those asking who we are, we are the soldiers of
Islam and have shouldered the responsibility to restore the glory of
the Islamic Caliphate”.
Residents near the border with Syria, where ISIL has exploited civil
war to seize wide tracts of the country's northeast, saw its
militants bull-dozing tracks through frontier sand berms - as a
prelude to trying to revive a mediaeval entity straddling both
ISIL has battled rival rebel factions in Syria for months and
occasionally taken on President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
But its fighters appear to have held back in Syria this week,
especially in their eastern stronghold near the Iraqi border, while
their Iraqi wing was making rapid military gains.
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WEAPONS INTO SYRIA
ISIL's Syria branch is now bringing in weapons seized in Iraq from
retreating government forces, according to Rami Abdulrahman, head of
the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Matthew Henman, Head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre
said in a report that ISIL's capture of Iraqi territory along the
Syrian border will give the group greater freedom of movement of men
and materiel across the two countries.
"Light and heavy weaponry, military vehicles, and money seized by
ISIL during the capture of Mosul will be moved into desert area of
eastern Syria, which ISIL has been using as a staging ground for
attacks," he said.
At Baiji, near Kirkuk, ISIL fighters ringed Iraq's largest refinery,
underlining the potential threat to the oil industry.
Further south, the fighters extended their advance to towns only
about an hour's drive from Baghdad, where Shi'ite militia were
mobilizing for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian
bloodbath of 2006 and 2007.
Trucks carrying Shi'ite volunteers in uniform rumbled towards the
front lines to defend Baghdad.
Security and police sources said Sunni militants now held parts of
the town of Udhaim, 90 km (55 miles) north of Baghdad. "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 (30 miles) west of Maliki's office.
ISIL has set up military councils to run the towns they captured,
residents said. “'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the
decisive battle will be there' - that’s what their leader kept
repeating," said a regional tribal figure.
The senior U.N. official in Iraq assured the Security Council that
Baghdad was in "no immediate danger". The council offered unanimous
support to the government and condemned "terrorism".
As with the concurrent war in Syria, the conflict cuts across global
alliances. The United States and Western and Gulf Arab allies back
the mainly Sunni revolt against the Iranian-backed Syrian President
Assad, but have had to watch as ISIL and other Islamists have come
to dominate large parts of Syria.
Now the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the 1980s fought
Saddam for eight years at a time when the Sunni Iraqi leader enjoyed
quiet U.S. support, may share an interest with the "Great Satan"
Washington in bolstering mutual ally Maliki.
The global oil benchmark prices have jumped, as concerns mounted
that the violence could disrupt supplies from a major 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
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 Shi'ites.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Ziad al-Sinjary in
Mosul Isabel Coles in Arbil, and Washington bureau; Writing by Mark
Heinrich, editing by Peter Millership)
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