US President Barack Obama on Thursday threatened military strikes in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north in a move to claim their own state, having seized two major cities and looking poised to reach Baghdad.
Iraqi 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 neighbouring Iran, a Shiite regional power.
“My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them [the Iraqi military], Obama said at the White House when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. “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,” he added.
“In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily,” he said.
Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in. “There is an insistence that there shall be no further boots on the ground. Both the White House and indeed the Pentagon have ruled that out entirely,” FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther reported from Washington DC.
Secret US drones over Iraq
US daily The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the United States had been secretly flying drones over Iraq in small numbers since last year to gather intelligence on insurgents.
The newspaper quoted a senior US official as saying the intelligence was shared with Iraqi forces, although the official added: “It’s not like it did any good.”
In his comments, Obama referred to long-standing US complaints that Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to do enough to heal a sectarian rift that has left many in the large Sunni minority shut out of power when US troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances 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.
But back home, Republican lawmakers pinned the blame for the escalating violence on the Obama administration for failing to successfully prepare Iraqi forces in handling operations after the 2011 US withdrawal, despite spending nearly $25 billion on training.
“The US provides fighter jets, helicopters, missiles, ammunition and training for those Iraqi forces that appear to have folded ever so easily,” Crowther reported. “That is why there is a lot of criticism towards the White House, and perhaps also the Pentagon, that provided the training for these Iraqi security forces that clearly were not up to the job.”
Vice President Joe Biden assured Maliki by telephone on Thursday that Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate its security support. The White House had signalled on Wednesday it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one US official said were previous Iraqi requests for air strikes.
Security contractors evacuated
As security concerns mounted, US weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq, and the US State Department said other companies were relocating workers as well.
“We can confirm that US citizens, under contract to the Government of Iraq, in support of the US Foreign Military Sales program in Iraq, are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
With voters wary of renewing the military entanglements of the past decade, Obama stepped back last year from launching air strikes in Syria, where the same Sunni group – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is also active. But fears of violence spreading may increase pressure for international action. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said international powers “must deal with the situation”.
Army flees as insurgents flaunt new wares
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIS fighters have taken control of Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, and other towns and cities north of Baghdad. The army has fled, abandoning bases and US-provided weapons. Online videos show hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops without uniforms marching under guard near Tikrit.
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 city, forcing thousands to flee. Witnesses saw ISIS fly two helicopters over the parade, apparently the first time the militant group had obtained aircraft.
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.
Security and police sources said militants now also control parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 kilometres (60 miles) north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions.
“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.”
Kurds snatch city amid chaos
Meanwhile, the forces of Iraq’s autonomous ethnic Kurdish north, known as the peshmerga, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army.
“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.
“The Kurds are a traditionally oppressed people, they believe history – especially the colonial powers – handed them a raw deal by denying them a homeland,” FRANCE 24 international affairs editor Leela Jacinto explains. “There’s little doubt that senior Iraqi military officials would like the peshmerga to join the battle against ISIS. These Kurdish fighters are battle-hardened, they have a reputation as brave fighters and they know the terrain well.
“But in order to get the Kurds' active participation in an onslaught, Baghdad has to be willing to make concessions to the Kurds on a number of issues.”
The swift move by their highly organised security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week’s sudden advance by ISIS has redrawn Iraq’s map – and potentially that of the entire Middle East.
ISIS and its allies took control of Falluja – which lies just 50 km (30 miles) west of Prime Minister Maliki’s office – at the start of the year.
Where 'life is normal'
In the city of Samarra, the next major point in the insurgents’ path on the Tigris north of Baghdad, the situation was said to be calm. “I can’t see any presence of the militants. Life is normal here,” Wisam Jamal, a government employee in the mainly Sunni city, told Reuters on Thursday.
Fareed Yassin, the Iraqi ambassador to France, used Samarra as an example of a turning point in the insurgency. “Key points such as Samarra are now maintained by the Iraqi special forces,” Yassin told FRANCE 24. “The pendulum is swinging back.”
Yassin admitted that the speed of the insurgency took the Iraqi government by surprise. “[Our] reaction has been somewhat slow in coming,” he said. “But for the time being the [insurgents’] progression towards Baghdad has been limited if not stopped, and rule of law will be restored in both Mosul and Tikrit, there is no question in my mind about that.”
The top UN official in Iraq assured the Security Council on Thursday that Baghdad was in “no immediate danger”. The council offered unanimous support to the government and condemned “terrorism”.
Back to Syria, Iran
As with the back-to-back war in Syria, the conflict cuts across global alliances. The United States and Western and Gulf Arab allies back the mainly Sunni revolt against Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but have had to watch as ISIS and other Islamists come to dominate large parts of Syria.
Now the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the 1980s fought Saddam Hussein for eight years (at a time when the Sunni Iraqi leader enjoyed quiet US support), may share an interest with the “Great Satan,” as Washington is known in Tehran, in bolstering mutual ally Maliki.
In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIS said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan “to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates” – meaning Shiites.
Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen after their seizure of some towns.
ISIS, 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 Syria, often employing brutal methods against enemies.
In Syria, it controls swathes of territory, funding its advances through extorting local businesses, seizing aid and selling oil. In Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings against Shiite civilians, killing hundreds a month.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)
Date created : 2014-06-13