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Obama talks of military options to assist Iraq

US president refuses to rule out airstrikes in bid to halt ISIL insurgents' march on Baghdad as Iraqi troops fail to offer resistance.
Iraqi security search men as they arrive to volunteer to join the fight against Islamist militants in the central Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf on June 12, 2104. Haidar Hamdani / AFP
Iraqi security search men as they arrive to volunteer to join the fight against Islamist militants in the central Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf on June 12, 2104. Haidar Hamdani / AFP

WASHINGTON // President Barack Obama said on Thursday the US was considering military options to help the Iraqi government as Islamist militants advanced to 90 kilometres from the capital.

“I don’t rule out anything,” Mr Obama said when asked whether the US was willing to send drones or warplanes to Iraq.

Iraq “clearly is an emergency situation” and the government there needs more help, he said.

“Short-term, immediate things” need to be done militarily, he said, and the US was looking at “all the options” short of sending troops into the fight.

Three years after the US and other international coalition members withdrew forces from Iraq, the Shiite-led government’s army is collapsing and Islamic militants are sweeping through northern Iraq.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are threatening the stability of Opec’s second-biggest oil producer.

On Thursday they pushed closer to Baghdad after capturing a town just hours to the north.

The ISIL militants have swept up a huge swath of mainly Sunni territory in northern and north-central Iraq since launching their offensive with the capture of Iraq’s second city Mosul on Monday.

With government forces abandoning their positions in the face of the ISIL push, forces from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region on Thursday took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

On Wednesday, ISIL fighters moved south to seize Tikrit, hometown of the former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was deposed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later executed.

On Thursday, they moved into the ethnically divided Diyala province, capturing the town of Dhuluiyah just 90km from Baghdad, army officers said.

An ISIL spokesman, Abu Mohammed Al Adnani, said the militants would press on to the capital and the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.

The government in Baghdad has been left floundering by the speed of the ISIL assault.

Prime minister Nouri Al Maliki said he would seek parliament’s authorisation to declare a state of emergency, but legislators failed to muster a quorum on Thursday.

Only 128 out of 325 MPs showed up for the session, which was announced two days before, a senior official said.

The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, at the start of the year. It has been a blow for western governments that invested lives and money in the invasion that toppled Saddam.

Iraqi foreign minister Hosyhar Zebari acknowledged the security forces in which Washington invested billions to train and equip before withdrawing its troops in 2011 had simply melted away.

“It is a setback definitely for the Iraqi security forces, who collapsed in the largest city and abandoned their weapons and equipment,” he said.

Mr Zebari said the forces were mounting a fightback in Tikrit, and residents reported an airstrike on the dictator’s former palace in the town.

Russia said the lightning gains by ISIL, a movement so radical it has been disavowed even by Al Qaeda, showed the pointlessness of the 2003 US-led invasion, carried out after the 9/11 attacks.

The offensive by ISIL militants, boosted by cash and government weapons seized in Mosul, has triggered global concern over the possible destabilisation of large parts of Iraq.

Signs have emerged that ISIL is backed by former military officers and other members of Saddam’s regime, including a force led by Izzat Al Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who has escaped capture.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to set up an Al Qaeda-style enclave into a wider Sunni uprising.

The UN Security Council on Thursday convened for a closed-door meeting on the Iraq crisis, although it remains unclear what further steps the council could take.

The Nato chief Anders Rasmussen said he saw no role in Iraq for the western alliance in the battle against the thousands of Islamist militants.

Mr Rasmussen also demanded the immediate release of Turkish citizens who were captured by militants when they overran Mosul.

“Let me stress that I do not see a role for Nato in Iraq, but of course we follow the situation closely and we urge all parties involved to stop the violence,” he said.

Turkey said it was talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, including 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate. They include the general consul and 31 truck drivers, the Turkish prime minister’s office said.

Washington found rare common cause with its long-time foe Iran, as both voiced dismay at the extremists’ advance and pledged to boost aid to Iraq’s beleaguered prime minister.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani went live on television on Thursday to denounce the “extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely”.

He said he would meet later with the Supreme National Security Council, which would have to approve any military support Tehran might want to provide to Baghdad.

* With reporting by Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg and Associated Press

Updated: June 13, 2014 04:00 AM

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