US considers military options as militants push closer to Baghdad

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Al Qaeda-inspired militants pushed into a province northeast of Baghdad Friday, capturing two towns there having already toppled cities in the country’s north, as the Obama administration considered a possible military response to the crisis.

Police officials said militants driving in machinegun-mounted pickups entered two towns in Diyala province late Thursday.

Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts there without any resistance, the officials told The Associated Press.

The fresh gains by the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant  (ISIS) come as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government struggles to form a coherent response after the Sunni militants blitzed and captured the country’s second-largest city of Mosul as well as other, smaller communities and military and police bases.

The new offensive by the militant group is the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, and it has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that would partition it into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.

Trumpeting their victory, the militants declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city they captured on Tuesday, and other areas they seized, and promised to march on Baghdad, joined by Saddam Hussein-era loyalists and other disaffected Sunnis.

The Obama administration is still trying to determine how to assist the Nouri al-Maliki government, while making clear it does not want U.S. troops in the middle of the fight.

“We are not contemplating ground troops,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.

President Obama promised Thursday to send more military aid, without saying what kind of new assistance would be given to Baghdad. Two U.S. officials who are familiar with ongoing negotiations told The Associated Press the White House is considering air strikes and increased surveillance, requested this week by the Iraqi defense minister, as the insurgency nears Baghdad.

According to the White House, Vice President Biden spoke Thursday with Maliki and expressed “solidarity” with the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official confirmed to Fox News that Americans were being evacuated from a base in Balad, which had been one of the largest training missions in Iraq.

The three planeloads of Americans are mostly contractors and civilians, and were still in the process of being evacuated Friday, the Associated Press reported. The State Department said Thursday that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is operating as usual.

The development signals the worsening security environment in the northern part of the country. One senior official told Fox News that the focus for evacuation at this point is on people outside of Baghdad.

Two senior intelligence sources, though, told Fox News there is serious concern about how to evacuate other Americans out of Iraq if the situation further deteriorates.

“We need places to land, we need safe and secure airfields,” one source said, noting that the militants are “seizing airfields and they have surface-to-air missiles, which very clearly threatens our pilots and planes if we do go into evacuation mode.”

Sources said “all western diplomats in Iraq are in trouble,” and American allies are scrambling to put together an evacuation plan. Military officials said there are “not a lot of good options.”

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 on Thursday.

Skirmishes continued in several areas. Two communities near Tikirt — 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.

In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, overrun by the militants on Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of the late dictator and Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, his former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded security forces ever since.

Fighters loyal to his Naqshabandi Army as well as former members of Saddam’s Baath Party were the main militant force in Tikrit on Thursday, said a resident who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Mohammed, out of concern for his safety. He said about 300 soldiers surrendered near the governor’s office.

Lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili as well as two senior intelligence officials, who were not authorized to talk to the media, confirmed the involvement of al-Douri’s group and other former Baathists and Saddam-era military commanders.

That could escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an Al Qaeda-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising and lead to breaking up the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

With its large Shiite population, Baghdad would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, they have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias.

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia vowed to defend Shiite holy sites, raising the specter of street clashes and sectarian killings.

Baghdad authorities tightened security and residents stocked up on essentials. Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Security officials said the Islamic State fighters managed to take control of two weapons depots holding 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars.

The U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, underscoring the growing international alarm over the stunning advances by the Islamic State.

The Iraqi government has been asking for more than a year for surveillance and armed drones to combat a Sunni insurgency that has gained strength from battlefield successes in neighboring Syria.

Republican lawmakers were harshly critical Thursday of the Obama administration’s response. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for Obama to replace his national security team.

House Speaker John Boehner snapped: “What’s the president doing? Taking a nap.”

Obama commented on the violence shortly afterward.

“What we’ve seen over the last couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq is going to need more help,” Obama said. “It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”

Several thousand Americans remain in Iraq, mostly contractors who work at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on programs to train Iraqi forces on American military equipment like fighter jets and tanks. Those being evacuated from Balad included 12 U.S. government officials and military personnel who have been training Iraqi forces to use fighter jets and surveillance drones.

Other U.S. contractors are at a tank training ground in the city of Taji, just north of the capital, that is still in operation for now.

In addition to the possible military assistance, State Department spokeswoman Psaki said the U.S. is sending about $12 million in humanitarian aid to help nearly a million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by recent fighting in the nation’s north and west.

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