Iraqis flee as militants close in; Obama says Iraq's government needs help
POSTED: Friday, June 13, 2014 - 6:36am
UPDATED: Monday, June 16, 2014 - 9:21am
(CNN) — Radical Islamists pushed forward in Iraq as an increasingly nervous United States sought ways to stop the militants from closing in on Baghdad.
As Iraq further disintegrated, residents fled Mosul in droves. Militants captured the country's second-largest city this week after soldiers scattered, leaving their uniforms and weapons behind.
Jittery families eager to leave sat in traffic jams stretching as far as the eye could see.
Violence is spreading and security deteriorating in the nation, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to say the beleaguered government required assistance.
"It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community," Obama said Thursday. "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."
A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the president has not yet made a decision on whether to act on any military options. But another senior administration official indicated that a decision could come as early as this weekend.
Airstrikes are among the options on the table, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday. But there will be no repeat of a large U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil.
"We are not contemplating ground troops," Carney said. "I want to be clear about that."
U.S. officials have also discussed bolstering ongoing efforts to send arms, equipment and intelligence information to help Iraq and its military.
The militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, want to establish an Islamic caliphate, or state, in the region.
ISIS has had significant success in Syria, where it is battling President Bashar al-Assad's government.
ISIS fighters amid civilian population
According to several U.S. officials, the U.S. military has not finalized a proposed set of ISIS targets in Iraq for Obama, amid significant military concerns that strikes may prove futile against ISIS fighters who are dispersed and mingled with a civilian population.
Several more top-level meetings are scheduled in the next 48 hours, as Obama mulls his course of action.
"Our planning is looking at the full range of options," a senior U.S. official told CNN. Those options range from increasing U.S. surveillance flights over ISIS areas to potential airstrikes, the official acknowledged.
But conducting airstrikes by either manned aircraft or drones presents several problems now being discussed inside the administration, the official said.
The official said that while the U.S. military and intelligence community had been watching events in Iraq closely, there is some surprise in the last few days about how fast ISIS has moved, and the scope of the lack of response from Iraqi forces.
Iraq has indicated a willingness for the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes against the militants.
Washington has already provided $15 billion in training, weapons and equipment to the Iraqi government.
The militants' march in Iraq has caught the world's attention, especially the United States, which led the 2003 invasion that toppled longtime leader Saddam Hussein.
Since then, instability and violence have plagued Iraq; though, until now, its woes had not included a fast-moving takeover of key cities.
On Friday, fighting for control of towns in Iraq continued.
While the Iraqi army has done little to resist the advance of the ISIS militants, Kurdish fighters deployed by the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government, in coordination with Baghdad, are having more impact.
The Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, are battling ISIS in Iraq's eastern Diyala province, said Mohammed Moullah Hassan, mayor of Khanaqin, a predominantly Kurdish area of Diyala.
He told CNN that 95% of Jalawla'a was now under the control of the Peshmerga, who are clashing with ISIS to regain the remaining areas.
Meanwhile, the town of Sadiya is encircled on one side by the Peshmerga and on the other by ISIS, with Iraqi security forces still in the town. The Peshmerga fighters are ready to enter if the security forces abandon their positions when ISIS advances, the mayor said.
On Thursday, authorities said that Kurdish troops had beaten back militants to control the entire province of Kirkuk.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki has called on Iraqi citizens to join the fight against the militants.
That call was echoed Friday by a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq.
During his Friday sermon in Najaf, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Al-Karbalai urged Iraqis to volunteer and fight for security forces. "The responsibility to confront and fight the terrorists is everyone's responsibility," he said.
Iraq claims victory in Tikrit
After days of stunning defeats, Iraq claimed a key victory Thursday.
Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, was under full control of the military Thursday, state-run Iraqiya TV said.
Just a day earlier, it appeared to be in the hands of militants.
The Iraqi military also carried out airstrikes overnight targeting the al-Ghazlany military base, just 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of Mosul, where a group of ISIS militants was believed to be based, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said Thursday.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said even though the military fled in Mosul this week, the government has since "taken a number of steps to push back the terrorists."
He said there were indications the militants were pulling out of Mosul, adding that the government was working with Kurdish regional powers to push them out.
Footage surfaced on social media sites Thursday purportedly showing ISIS militants parading heavy artillery through Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million that collapsed swiftly Tuesday in the face of the assault by heavily armed radicals.
More than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in Mosul, the International Organization for Migration said Wednesday. The U.N. refugee agency said many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and were in urgent need of shelter, water, food and medical care.
Rights group Human Rights Watch has highlighted fears that the ISIS militants will commit abuses against civilians in territory they control.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Friday that the agency had received reports of the summary executions of Iraqi army soldiers during the capture of Mosul.
This includes the execution of 17 people on a street in Mosul on Wednesday, he said.
Radicals in Mosul
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said American citizens working on contracts supporting U.S. military sales to Iraq are being temporarily relocated.
Among those leaving for safety are U.S. contractors at a military base in Balad, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Baghdad.
"We are fully aware of the unfolding situation in Iraq and are working closely with the U.S. government to ensure the safety and protection of all of our employees," said Mike Rein, a spokesman for defense and security firm Lockheed Martin.
The security concerns were exacerbated by the seizure of 48 people, including diplomats, in a Wednesday raid on the Turkish Consulate.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday that the health of those captured is "fine." He said the government was working to secure their release.
Militants also seized parts of Baiji, a small town where Iraq's largest oil refinery is located.
For the government to reinforce its troops in Mosul, it needs to drive them through Baiji. If the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria controls the town, the government's task will be much harder.
Earlier this year, ISIS took control of the city of Falluja and parts of Ramadi. Across the border in Syria, it controls towns such as Raqqa.
CNN's Jim Acosta, Yousuf Basil, Barbara Starr, Raja Razek, Arwa Damon and journalist Sherko Raouf contributed to this report.