Iraqi Kurds seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday as Sunni insurgents threatened to advance on Baghdad — two developments that further indicate that the central government has now lost large swathsof a country spiraling deeper into chaos and internecine violence.
Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk, a city with huge oil reserves just outside their autonomous region, which they regard as their historical capital. The swift move by their highly organized security forces demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by the armed group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has redrawn Iraq's map.
The ongoing instability prompted talk of international action Thursday, with Iran raising the specter of involvement in its neighbor's affairs and reports that authorities in Baghdad had earlier asked the U.S. to consider airstrikes to support their push against ISIL.
An Obama administration official said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last month secretly asked Washington to consider carrying out strikes against ISIL positions, but the White House rebuffed the request, The New York Times reported.
"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 Thursday at the White House when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.
Obama said he was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders. "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 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.
The U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, and Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the council president, said the U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, told members by videoconference that "there is no immediate danger of the violence spreading to Baghdad" ... that the city "is well protected and the government is in control."
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged to combat the “violence and terrorism” brought by ISIL.
On the ground in Iraq, government forces appeared to be in retreat Thursday.
Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, swept into Kirkuk after the army abandoned its posts there, a spokesman said.
"The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," said Jabbar Yawar, a Kurdish military spokesman, according to Reuters.
The offensive by the Sunni Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIL potentially leaves the long desert frontier between Iraq and Syria effectively in the group’s hands, advancing its stated goal of erasing the border altogether and creating a single state ruled according to strict Sharia law.
At the same time, the Kurdish capture of Kirkuk instantly overturns the fragile balance of power between Iraq’s feuding religious and ethnic groups.
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq's second biggest city, Mosul, and Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein, as well as other towns and cities north of Baghdad.
They continued their lightning advance on Thursday, moving into towns just an hour's drive from the capital. Security and police sources said fighters now controlled parts of the small town of Udhaim, 60 miles north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions and withdrew toward the nearby town of Khalis.
The army of the Shia-led government in Baghdad has essentially fled in the face of the onslaught, abandoning buildings and weapons to ISIL fighters.
Amid their forces’ retreat in the north, officials stepped up security in Baghdad to prevent the fighters from reaching the capital, which is itself divided into Sunni and Shia neighborhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006–07 under U.S. occupation.
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 this week, the government could be left in control only of Baghdad and areas south.
“We are waiting for supporting troops, 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."
In Tikrit, Sunni paramilitary groups 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,” said a tribal figure from the town of Alam, north of Tikrit. “They picked a retired general to run the town.
“‘Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be there,’ that’s what the leader of the militants’ group kept repeating,” the tribal figure said.
The administration of President Barack Obama has come under fire, with critics saying it failed to sufficiently shore up the government in Baghdad before pulling out its troops in 2011.
The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States at a cost of nearly $25 billion, suffers from low morale. Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in Sunni areas that it represents the interests of the Shia-led government.
Iraq's parliament failed to reach a quorum on Thursday for a vote on declaring a nationwide state of emergency.
Most of those boycotting parliament were from Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish factions, who oppose giving extraordinary powers to Maliki, who is Shia.
About 500,000 Iraqis have fled Mosul, home to 2 million people, and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in autonomous Kurdistan, a region that has prospered while patrolled by the powerful peshmerga, avoiding the violence that has plagued the rest of Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Iraq's Kurds have done well since then, 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.
ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had a falling out with Al-Qaeda's international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, and has fought against Al-Qaeda forces in Syria.
Al Jazeera and wire services