US military bombs two more targets in northern Iraq
Members of Congress support air strikes but Republicans question Obama’s long-term strategy
But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of an advance by the fighters, who have heavy weapons they seized from Iraqi army troops that abandoned their posts in June. In addition, the fighters are flush with cash looted from banks.
Christians, many of them already refugees who had sought shelter in peshmerga-controlled areas, were suddenly forced to flee. Tens of thousands of Christians fled yesterday when the Islamic State overran their hometown, Qaraqosh.
A United Nations humanitarian spokesman said some 200,000 people fleeing the Islamists’ advance had reached the town of Dohuk on the Tigris River in Iraqi Kurdistan and nearby areas of Nineveh province. Tens of thousands had fled further north to the Turkish border, Turkish officials said.
While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.
Mr Maliki, a Shia Islamist whose foes accuse him of fuelling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarising figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old scholar whose word is law for millions of Shias in Iraq and beyond, has repeatedly pushed for politicians to break the deadlock and reunify the country. His weekly sermon today, read out by an aide, was his clearest call for Mr Maliki to go.
Though he did not mention Mr Maliki by name, he said those who cling to posts were making a “grave mistake”.
Reuters photographs yesterday showed the insurgents had raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45 km from Arbil. US oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron began evacuating expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan. Smaller oil companies also evacuated staff and cut back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on yesterday and today.
The Islamists’ lightning offensive and the threat of US military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets such as gold and German government bonds.
Mr Obama, who brought US troops home from Iraq to fulfill a campaign pledge, insisted he would not commit ground forces and had no intention of letting the United States “get dragged into fighting another war in Iraq”.
Questions were quickly raised in Washington about whether selective US attacks on militant positions and humanitarian air drops would be enough to shift the balance on the battlefield against the Islamist forces.
“I completely support humanitarian aid as well as the use of air power,” Republican senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after <r Obama’s announcement. “However the actions announced tonight will not turn the tide of battle.”