President Barack Obama on Thursday threatened U.S. 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 power Iran.
“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. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.
Obama 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 said.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, shut out of power when U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.
“This should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this,” Obama said.
Vice President Joe Biden assured Maliki by telephone 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 U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.
As security concerns mounted, U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq, and the U.S. State Department said other companies were relocating workers as well.
“We can confirm that U.S. citizens, under contract to the Government of Iraq, in support of the U.S. 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.
She declined to say how many contractors were being relocated and their location, but said the U.S. Embassy and consulates were still operating normally.
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 the Levant, or ISIL, 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”.
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 city.
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 had obtained aircraft.
It was unclear who the pilots were, but Sunnis who served in the forces of Saddam have rallied to the insurgency, led by an ambitious Iraqi former follower of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.
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