Obama warns of U.S. action as jihadists push on Baghdad
BAGHDAD/ARBIL - 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 neighbouring 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.
A U.S. defense 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 U.S. official as saying the intelligence was shared with Iraqi forces. The official added: "It's not like it did any good."
In his comments, Obama 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.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden assured 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 U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.
As security concerns mounted, U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp said on Thursday it was evacuating about two dozen employees from northern Iraq. The U.S. State Department said other companies were relocating workers as well.