Iraq has called for US air strikes on militants who attacked its main oil refinery and seized more territory in the north, putting US President Barack Obama under pressure on Thursday amid warnings the country could unravel.
The White House said Obama has not ruled out such strikes after a lightning eight-day offensive by Sunni fighters, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that has seen them rapidly bear down on the capital. While officials touted progress, militants seized three villages in northern Iraq.
“Iraq has officially asked Washington to help… and to conduct air strikes against terrorist groups,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in Saudi Arabia.
However, Zebari said “a military approach will not be enough. We acknowledge the need for drastic political solutions.” The United States spent billions of dollars over several years training and arming Iraqi security forces after disbanding the Sunni-led army following the 2003 invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Washington has deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and sent military personnel to bolster security at its Baghdad embassy, but Obama insists a return to combat in Iraq is not in the cards. Iraq has scrambled to repel the militant offensive, with Maliki firing disgraced security commanders and vowing to “face terrorism and bring down the conspiracy.” “We will teach (militants) a lesson and strike them,” he said.
Maliki said that security forces, which wilted in the face of the offensive that overran all of one province and chunks of three more in a matter of days last week, had suffered a “setback” but had not been defeated.
His security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said security forces would shortly retake full control of Tal Afar, a Shiite town in the north that lies along a strategic corridor to Syria. That would provide a base from which to launch operations to recapture Mosul, he said.
With regional tensions rising, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic republic “will do everything” to protect Shiite shrines in Iraqi cities against the militant assault. And Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, while the United Arab Emirates recalled its envoy to Baghdad, voicing concern over “exclusionary and sectarian policies”.