Obama: U.S. Considering ‘All the Options’
Islamic insurgents who seized cities and towns vowed Thursday to march on Baghdad to settle old scores, joined by Saddam Hussein-era loyalists and other disaffected Sunnis capitalizing on the government’s political paralysis over the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrawal.
Trumpeting their victory, the insurgents also declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul and other areas they have captured.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces moved to fill the power vacuum —taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk. The move further raised concern the country could end up partitioned into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad, U.S. officials said, and Germany urged its citizens to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad.
President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the United States, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide.
“It’s going to need more help from us and it’s going to need more help from the international community,” Obama told reporters in brief comments from the Oval Office. “That includes, in some cases military equipment, it includes intelligence assistance, it includes a whole host of issues.”
Obama said his team was working “around the clock” and considering “all the options.”
Senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in Iraq.
For more than a year, the Iraqi government has been pleading with the U.S. for additional help to combat the insurgency, which has been fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Northern Iraq has become a way station for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are spreading the Syrian war’s violence.
Iraqi leaders made a fresh request earlier this week, asking for a mix of drones and manned aircraft that could be used for both surveillance and active missions. Officials said Obama was considering those requests and was expected to decide on a course of action within a few days.
The U.S. already is flying unmanned aircraft over Iraq for intelligence purposes, an official said.
The U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, underscoring the growing international alarm over the stunning advances by fighters from the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him and his Shiite-led government increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers failed to assemble a quorum.
The Islamic State, whose Sunni fighters have captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the border. It has pushed deep into parts of Iraq’s Sunni heartland once controlled by U.S. forces, because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes, including in Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.
Skirmishes continued in several areas. Two communities near Tikrit — the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine — remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials. The price of oil jumped to more than $106 a barrel as the insurgency raised the risk of disruptions to supplies.
In its statement, the Islamic State declared it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes, warned they would cut off the hands of thieves, and told residents to attend daily prayers. It said Sunnis in the military and police should abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”
The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.
“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on terrorist websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.
Baghdad does not appear to be in imminent danger of a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital recently.
In Shiite led Iran, President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered support in a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian media reported. Iran has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security on its borders.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts were underway to free 80 Turkish citizens held by terrorists in Mosul, an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office said. The captives include 49 people seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the ISIL. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary of Kurdish claims on territory.