US President Barack Obama refused to rule out US action in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north to head towards Baghdad, threatening to divide the country and establish their own jihadist state.
Hours after ethnic Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the forces of the Shi’ite-led government abandoned their posts, Obama was asked if he might order drone strikes or other action to halt the insurgency. “I don’t rule anything out,” he said.
He added that the United States had an interest in denying a foothold to the militants and that Washington was prepared to take military action when its national security interests are threatened.
In Mosul, Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars seized from a collapsing Iraqi army.
At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq’s largest refinery underscoring the potential threat to the oil industry.
At Mosul, which had a population close to two 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.
Further south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour’s drive from the capital, where Shi’ite militia are mobilising for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006-2007. Trucks carrying Shi’ite volunteers in uniform rumbled towards the front lines to defend Baghdad.
The stunning advance of ISIS, which aims to build a state ruled on medieval Sunni Islamic principles across Syria and Iraq, is the biggest threat to Iraq since US troops withdrew from the country.
The security forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north, known as the peshmerga, or “those who confront death”, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army, a spokesman said. 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.
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIS fighters who do not recognise the region’s modern frontiers have seized Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, and other towns and cities north of Baghdad. The army has evaporated in the face of the onslaught, abandoning bases and US-provided weapons.
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,” the tribal figure said.