Jihadists swept toward Baghdad on Thursday as President Barack Obama said he was exploring all options to save Iraq’s security forces from collapse and U.S. companies evacuated hundreds from a major air base.
With the militants closing in on the capital, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided northern city they have sought to rule for decades against the objections of successive governments in Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari acknowledged the security forces that Washington invested billions in training and equipping before withdrawing its own troops in 2011 had simply melted away.
Obama said Iraq was going to need “more help from the United States and from the international community.”
“Our national security team is looking at all the options … I don’t rule out anything,” he said.
Russia said the lightning gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a movement so radical it has been disavowed even by the Al Qaeda leadership, showed the pointlessness of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, carried out in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Washington found rare common cause with its longtime foe Tehran, with both voicing dismay at the Sunni extremists’ advance and pledging to boost aid to Iraq’s beleaguered Shia prime minister.
The militants, who have swept up a huge swathe of predominantly Sunni Arab territory in northern and north-central Iraq since launching their offensive in the second city Mosul late on Monday, advanced into ethnically divided Diyala province. Late Thursday, they captured the Jalawla and Saadiyah areas of the province, whose mixed Arab, Kurdish, Sunni and Shia population has made it a byword for violence ever since the 2003 overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani vowed the jihadists would not stop there, but would press on to the capital and the Shia shrine city of Karbala, visited by millions of pilgrims from around the world each year.
The Shia -led government in Baghdad has been left floundering by the speed of the jihadist assault. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he would seek parliament’s authorization to declare a state of emergency but M.P.s failed to muster a quorum for the vote on Thursday. Only 128 out of 325 M.P.s showed up for the session, a senior official said.
The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, earlier this year. It has been a blow for Western governments that have paid a steep price both in lives and money in Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister acknowledged the collapse of the security forces in Mosul and other cities, with many personnel melting away after discarding their uniforms. “It is a setback definitely for the Iraqi security forces, who collapsed in the largest city and abandoned their weapons and equipment,” he said.
Zebari said the security forces were mounting a fightback in Tikrit—the hometown of the now executed Saddam—and witnesses and officials reported air strikes on the dictator’s former palace in the town as well as a former army base taken over by militants in Mosul.
Washington is considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. Resorting to such aircraft—used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in a highly controversial program—would mark a dramatic shift in the U.S. engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011. But there is no current plan to send U.S. troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died during the conflict.
U.S. companies were evacuating “a few hundred” American contractors working with the Iraqi government from Balad air base, a U.S. defense official said. The contractors “are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the spectacular collapse of the Western-trained Iraqi army illustrated “the total failure of the adventure involving the United States and Britain.” And Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress were swift to accuse the president of abandoning Iraq by pulling out U.S. troops in 2011.
Senator Lindsey Graham warned a jihadist takeover in both Iraq and neighboring Syria would create a “hell on earth” and called for the urgent deployment of U.S. air power to “change the battlefield equation.” Turkey said it was holding talks to secure the release of dozens of its citizens kidnapped by Islamist militants in northern Iraq amid international calls for their release.
The Kurdish minister responsible for his autonomous region’s former rebel security forces was targeted by a bomb attack as he made an inspection tour of the outskirts of the oil city of Kirkuk, which Kurdish forces took over on Thursday, but escaped unharmed. But a news photographer was killed and 14 Kurdish troops wounded in fighting with the militants who have seized a string of mainly Sunni Arab towns in the west of the province.
The U.N. Security Council demanded urgent dialogue and condemned “terrorist” activities, but stopped short of mulling action against the militants. As many as half a million people have fled the jihadist offensive and the World Food Program said it had started providing assistance to 42,000 of the most vulnerable.