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Obama warns of US action as ISIL fighters push on Baghdad, June 12, 2014

ISIL Iraqi fighter in Mosul after capturing the city from the Iraqi government army, June 12, 2014 Volunteers joining Iraqi government army to fight ISIL fighters


Iraqi security forces repel insurgents attacks in Diyala, as militants advance to Baghdad


BAGHDAD, June 12, 2014 (Xinhua) --

Iraqi security forces fought back insurgents' attempts to advance towards the country's eastern province of Diyala on Thursday, while Sunni militant groups continued their march towards the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

In Diyala, Iraqi security forces and the militants engaged in fierce clashes in a rural area near the villages of Tabaj, north of the provincial capital Baquba, killing two soldiers and three militants, a security source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.

Sadeq al-Husseini, head of security committee in Diyala provincial council, said the Iraqi forces are preparing for counter attacks on insurgent positions in a militant-seized town of Sulaiman Beg in neighboring Salahudin province.

"The troops will storm the town from three directions after reinforcement troops joined the forces in Diyala and are now closing to Sulaiman Beg," Husseini said.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi army source rejected the reports that the security forces withdrew from their positions on the Iraqi- Syrian border in the volatile Sunni province of Anbar, saying that only one brigade left their positions near the city of Qaim, while the rest remained in the desert alongside the border with Syria.

Earlier, an Anbar provincial police source said the Iraqi army, police and border guards withdrew late Wednesday from their positions on the border with Syria near the city of Qaim, some 330 km northwest of Baghdad.

Immediately after the withdrawal, Sunni tribal leaders of the city announced the takeover of the border area and the city, the source said.

Also in the province, Sunni militants swept a major military base of the al-Mazraa, just west of the militant-controlled city of Fallujah, and seized large amounts of vehicles, weapons and ammunition after the army soldiers' sudden retreat, the source said.

The militants also seized the battlefield-town of Saqlawiyah after an overnight fighting with the government troops, and headed towards Baghdad, the source said.

In Salahudin province, Iraqi security forces in the city of Samarra were still fighting with militant groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, an al-Qaida breakaway group in Iraq, local police source said.

In Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security source said the Kurdish forces took full control of Kirkuk, some 250 km north of Baghdad, after the Iraqi army withdrew from its military base in the area.

The Kurdish security forces' takeover of the city raises concerns that the central government's forces are losing their battle against militants in the region.

On Wednesday, Iraqi soldiers left their major military base, just 10 km northwest of Kirkuk, the source said, adding that after the soldiers abandoned their posts, dozens of civilians plundered the site and seized their weapons.

The ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk is among the disputed areas claimed by three of Iraq's diverse ethnic groups, the Kurds, the Arabs and the Turkomans. The Kurds want to incorporate the areas bordering the Kurdistan region, but their claim is fiercely opposed by the government in Baghdad.

The state-run Iraqiya television aired a footage showing the Iraqi air force bombing insurgent positions in and around the city of Mosul, some 400 km north of Baghdad, including an attack on the military base of al-Ghizlani, which located in south of Mosul and was seized by the Sunni militants.

The channel said the air force carried out airstrikes on militants in north of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Also in the day, the Iraqi parliament failed to call for an emergency session to discuss whether to impose the state of emergency for some political blocs did not show up, said the Iraqiya official channel, adding that the decision requires the approval of two-thirds of the legislature's 325 members.

On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared a highest alert in the country, and urged the parliament to declare a state of emergency in the face of the worsening security situation.

However, observers believe that Maliki's political opponents would boycott the session for they worry the state of emergency would give Maliki more powers that could enable him to hit his political rivals.

The security deterioration in Iraq started last week when bloody clashes broke out between the Iraqi security forces and hundreds of gunmen who took control of several neighborhoods in western part of Mosul, and expanded later to other areas after the Iraqi security forces withdrew from the city.


Obama warns of US action as ISIL fighters push on Baghdad

By Ahmed Rasheed and Isabel Coles


Thursday, June 12, 2014, 7:59pm EDT

(Reuters) -

President Barack Obama on Thursday threatened U.S. military strikes in Iraq against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north to menace 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 Shi'ite-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad's allies both in the West and in neighboring Shi'ite regional power Iran.

"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," Obama said at the White House when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.

Obama was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders, who took full control when the U.S. 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.

But he also referred to long-standing U.S. complaints that Shi'ite 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 U.S. 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," Obama said.

Vice President Joe Biden assured Maliki by telephone that Washington was prepared to intensify and accelerate its security support. The White House had signaled on Wednesday it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.

As security concerns mounted, U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp LMT.N said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq, and the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Embassy and consulates were still operating normally.

With voters wary of renewing the military entanglements of the past decade, Obama stepped back last year from launching air strikes in Syria, where the same Sunni group - the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or 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, and 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.


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. The targets could be seen exploding in black clouds.

Farther south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour's drive from the capital, where Shi'ite militia are mobilizing for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006 and 2007.

Trucks carrying Shi'ite 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 organized 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 showed purportedly a column of hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops without uniforms being marched under guard near Tikrit.

Security and police sources said Sunni militants now controlled parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions.

"We are waiting for reinforcements, and we are determined not to let them take control," said a police officer in Udhaim.

"We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to cut the main highway that links Baghdad to the north."

ISIL and its allies took control of Falluja at the start of the year. It lies just 50 km (30 miles) west of Maliki's office.


The top U.N. official in Iraq assured the Security Council the capital was in "no immediate danger". The council offered unanimous support to the government and condemned "terrorism".

As with the back-to-back war in Syria, the conflict cuts across global alliances. The United States and Western and Gulf Arab allies back the mainly Sunni revolt against Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but have had to watch as ISIL and other Islamists have come to dominate large parts of Syria.

Now the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the 1980s fought Saddam for eight years at a time when the Sunni Iraqi leader enjoyed quiet U.S. support, may share an interest with the "Great Satan" Washington in bolstering mutual ally Maliki.

The global oil benchmark jumped over 2 percent LCOc1 on Thursday, as concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies from the OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are in the largely Shi'ite areas in the south and were "very, very safe", oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.

ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the main oil refinery that meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel. Luaibi said the refinery itself was still in government hands. But late on Thursday, police and an engineer inside the plant said insurgents were surrounding it.

Militants have set up military councils to run the towns they captured, residents said. "They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town,” said a tribal figure from the town of Alam.

“'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be there' - that’s what their leader kept repeating."

Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the Sunni militants from reaching the capital, which is itself divided into Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006-2007 under U.S. occupation.

By midday on Thursday, insurgents had not entered Samarra, the next big city in their path on the Tigris north of Baghdad.

“The situation inside Samarra is very calm today, and I can’t see any presence of the militants. Life is normal here,” said Wisam Jamal, a government employee in the mainly Sunni city, which also houses a major Shi'ite pilgrimage site.


The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States at a cost of nearly $25 billion, is hobbled by low morale and corruption. Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in Sunni areas that it pursues the hostile interests of Shi'ites.

The Obama administration had tried to keep a contingent of troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to prevent a return of insurgents, but failed to reach a deal with Maliki. A State Department official said on Thursday that Washington was disappointed after "a clear structural breakdown" of the Iraqi forces.

Iraq's parliament was meant to hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian political dysfunction that has paralyzed decision-making in Baghdad.

The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk overturns a fragile balance of power that has held Iraq together since Saddam's fall.

Iraq's Kurds have done well since 2003, running their own affairs while being given a fixed percentage of the country's overall oil revenue. But with full control of Kirkuk - and the vast oil deposits beneath it - they could earn more on their own, eliminating the incentive to remain part of a failing Iraq.

With Syria's Kurds already exploiting civil war there to run their own affairs, Iraqi Kurdish expansionism could worry U.S. ally Turkey, which has its own large Kurdish minority and fears a renewed attempt to redraw borders and create a Kurdish state.

Maliki's army already lost control of much of the Euphrates valley west of the capital to ISIL last year, and with the evaporation of the army in the Tigris valley to the north, the government could be left with just Baghdad and areas south - home to the Shi'ite majority in Iraq's 32 million population.

Iran, which funds and arms Shi'ite groups in Iraq, could be brought deeper into the conflict, as could Turkey to the north. In Mosul, 80 Turks were held hostage by ISIL after Ankara's consulate there was overrun.

Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a "conspiracy" and said the security forces who had abandoned their posts would be punished. In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan "to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates" - meaning Shi'ites.

Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen after their seizure of some towns.

ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda's international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in Syria, often employing brutal methods against enemies.

In Syria, it controls swathes of territory, funding its advances through extorting local businesses, seizing aid and selling oil. In Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings against Shi'ite civilians, killing hundreds a month.

(Additional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit, Ziad al-Sinjary in Mosul,; Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Raheem Salman and Isra al-Rubei'i in Baghdad and Jeff Mason,; Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Lesley Wroughton and Andrea Shalal in Washington; Writing by Peter; Graff and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Will Waterman and Peter Cooney)


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