US president Barack Obama last night threatened US military strikes in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north to threaten Baghdad and want to establish their own state in Iraq and Syria.
Iraqi Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the troops of the Shia-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad’s allies both in the West and in neighbouring Shia regional power Iran.
Last night it was reported that Iran has intervened in the conflict, deploying a branch of the Revolutionary Guards to bolster Iraqi government troops who have been routed by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Iran's Quds Forces helped troops from Nouri al-Maliki's beleaguered Shia-led Iraqi government to retake 85 per cent of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace, from Isis yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic "will not tolerate this violence and terrorism . . . we will fight and battle violence and extremism and terrorism in the region and the world". Earlier Mr Obama had said: "I don't rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria," when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in. Mr Obama was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders, who took full control when the US occupation ended in 2011.
“In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily,” he said.
A US defence official said the United States had been flying surveillance drones over Iraq to help it fight the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Wall Street Journal, which reported the flights had been taking place in small numbers since last year, quoted a senior US official as saying the intelligence was shared with Iraqi forces.
The official added: "It's not like it did any good." In his comments, Mr Obama referred to long-standing US complaints that Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to do enough to heal a sectarian rift that has left many in the big Sunni minority, shut out of power when US troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.
“This should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this,” Mr Obama said.
US vice president Joe Biden assured Mr Maliki by telephone that Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate its security support.
The White House had signalled on Wednesday it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one US official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.
As security concerns mounted, US weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq.
The US State Department said other companies were relocating workers as well.
“We can confirm that U.S. citizens, under contract to the Government of Iraq, in support of the US foreign military sales program in Iraq, are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
She declined to say how many contractors were being relocated and their location, but said the US Embassy and consulates were still operating normally.
With voters wary of renewing the military entanglements of the past decade, Mr Obama stepped back last year from launching air strikes in Syria, where the ISIL is also active.
But fears of violence spreading may increase pressure for international action. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said international powers “must deal with the situation”.
In Mosul, ISIL staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since its fighters drove out of the desert and overran the city.
At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq’s largest refinery, underscoring the potential threat to the oil industry.
Residents near the Syrian border saw them bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms - giving physical form to the dream of reviving a Muslim caliphate straddling both modern states.
This was before reports of Iran’s intervention.
At Mosul, which had a population close to 2 million before recent events forced hundreds of thousands to flee, witnesses saw ISIL fly two helicopters over the parade, apparently the first time the militant group had obtained aircraft.
It was unclear who the pilots were but Sunnis who served in the forces of Saddam have rallied to the insurgency, led by an ambitious Iraqi former follower of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden.
State television showed what it said was aerial footage of Iraqi aircraft firing missiles at insurgent targets in Mosul.
Further south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour’s drive from the capital, where Shia militia are mobilising for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007.
Trucks carrying Shia volunteers in uniform rumbled towards the front lines to defend Baghdad.
The forces of Iraq’s autonomous ethnic Kurdish north, known as the peshmerga, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army.
“The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” said peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar.
“No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”
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.
The swift move by their highly organised security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week’s sudden advance by ISIL has redrawn Iraq’s map - and potentially that of the entire Middle East, where national borders were set nearly a century ago as France and Britain carved up the Ottoman empire.
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters have seized Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, and other towns and cities north of Baghdad. The army has evaporated before the onslaught, abandoning bases and U.S.-provided weapons. Online videos purportedly showed a column of hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops without uniforms being marched under guard near Tikrit.