Obama: Iraq needs U.S., international help as ISIS threatens to seize more cities

Obama: Iraq needs U.S., international help as ISIS threatens to seize more cities
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Thursday, June 12, 2014 - 4:13pm

By Laura Smith-Spark and Ashley Fantz- CNN

(CNN) -- Iraq is going to need more help from the United States and the international community, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday as a militant group gained control of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is threatening the takeover of more cities, including the capital, Baghdad.

ISIS wants to establish an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across the region.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, the President said the U.S. "will not rule anything out" with regard to the unrest in Iraq. "This is an area that we have been watching with a lot of concern," he said.

A senior administration official told CNN that sending troops into Iraq is not being considered.

"No boots on ground," the official said.

Earlier Thursday, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani purportedly can be heard in an audio recording posted on the group's media website.

"Continue your march as the battle is not yet raging," the voice says. "It will rage in Baghdad and Karbala. So be ready for it."

CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the 17-minute-long audio statement or the time of its recording.

"Don't give up a hand's width of ground you've liberated," the voice continues, seeming to encourage the militant fighters.

For its part, the Iraqi government claimed a victory as well.

Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein, was under full control of the military Thursday, state-run Iraqiya TV said. Just a day earlier, it appeared largely to have fallen to the militant fighters.

The Iraqi military carried out airstrikes overnight, targeting the al-Ghazlany military base, just five kilometers south of Mosul where a group of ISIS militants are believed to be based, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said in a statement Thursday.

Speaking in London, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN on Thursday that the government has "taken a number of steps to push back the terrorists" but that the takeover of Mosul had been a "major security setback."

He said the Iraqi army in the city had "collapsed, basically," and commanders were fleeing north.

"The government has to take a ... serious look at the makeup and the doctrine of the new Iraqi armed forces. You cannot run a country with such commanders."

But Zebari also said there were "already indications" the militants were pulling out of Mosul, adding that the government was working with Kurdish regional powers to push them out.

His statements were made as footage surfaced on social media sites Thursday purportedly showing ISIS militants parading heavy artillery through Mosul.

Iraqi official: Nobody has called for U.S. troops

Zebari declined to give a clear answer when asked what assistance Iraq had requested from the United States.

But he said, "Nobody has called ... for the introduction (of) American troops into Iraq."

Zebari said Washington has been cooperative and has a responsibility to be proactive in Iraq's fight against terrorism.

The United States has helped and can help with "a whole range of options," including counterintelligence training and supplying equipment and munitions, he added.

Iraq's parliament failed to hold an emergency session Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, as al-Maliki had requested, Iraqiya TV reported.

Some Iraqi lawmakers refused to attend Thursday's session to prevent a quorum.

Their deadlock may be reflective of the increasingly sectarian divide in both Iraq's military and government.

While acknowledging the need for the Shia-dominated government to be more inclusive, Zebari called for lawmakers to rise above divisions and unite in the face of the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"Really, this is not the time to be involved in these internal political differences," he said. "We are facing a larger threat."

Red Cross: Don't target civilians

While the violence continued, the International Committee of the Red Cross pleaded Thursday that civilians be spared.

"Civilians must not be attacked and they must be allowed to move freely to safer areas," said Patrick Youssef, head of the ICRC delegation in Iraq. "Civilian structures such as homes, hospitals, schools or places of worship must not be targeted."

ICRC personnel in Kirkuk, Dohuk, Irbil and Baghdad are paying close attention the situation, Youssef said, noting that Mosul is enduring power shortages. Hospitals there have the capacity to treat large numbers of people, he said, but some have stopped functioning.

ICRC staff members have distributed one-month food parcels and other relief items to more than 10,000 people displaced in Zummar and in Al-Qosh, north of Mosul. More food and other supplies will be delivered soon, Youssef said. The ICRC is appealing to all the parties involved in the unrest, he added.

The International Rescue Committee said it was "deeply concerned" about the displacement of Iraqis fleeing the violence and the Syrian refugees in Iraq who fled fighting in their country.

"The potential toxic brew of two neighboring countries in such a volatile region imploding has grave humanitarian consequences," IRC said Thursday in a statement.

Government open to U.S. strikes on militants

The devastating militant advance, which had been building for some time, is proving an object lesson of much that is wrong in Iraq and the region -- growing sectarian tensions at home and a festering civil war over the border in Syria.

It also shows that extremists can strike swiftly and effectively against Iraq's American-trained security forces.

It came as little surprise when Iraq indicated a willingness Wednesday for the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes against the radical Islamist militants.

Washington has provided $15 billion in training, weapons and equipment to the Iraqi government.

But U.S. officials said the situation is "extremely urgent," and the United States is looking to see what more support it can provide Iraq.

Part of the help involves giving Iraq intelligence it can use to go after the militant group.

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the White House was looking at a range of options, but "the current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat."

When the militants attacked the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit, government forces took off, leaving their weapons behind.

There clearly was a breakdown in Iraqi security, a U.S. official said. But Washington says it was caused by a combination of factors, including that Iraqi forces were already stretched thin by limited success against ISIS in another province, the insurgency-racked Anbar.

Rapid takeovers

For now, militants remain in control of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million that collapsed swiftly Tuesday. The heavily armed radicals overran police stations, freed more than 1,000 prisoners from the city jail and took over the international airport.

Iraqi forces ran in the face of the onslaught, leaving behind uniforms, weapons and armored vehicles.

Since then, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting there, 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.

On Wednesday, militants raided the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, capturing 48 people, including diplomats.

"If any harm is done to any of our citizens, it will not go unanswered," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "No one should test Turkey."

On Thursday he said during a televised news conference that the health of the Turkish diplomats and nationals who were captured is "fine."

The government will "continue working around the clock and will continue working until they all return home safely," he vowed.

The 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.

A silver lining?

However, one silver lining, the American officials said, is that Iraq seems to have a coordinated approach with the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. It appears that Iraqi forces will team up with Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, to fight the militant group.

Peshmerga forces took up positions in southwest Kirkuk after militants took over areas north and west of the city, and the Iraqi army withdrew, according to police officials there.

Helgort Hakmet, head of the media office of the Kurdistan Peshmerga Ministry, told CNN on Thursday that Kurdish troops now control the entire province of Kirkuk.

Local police forces are still in charge of the security inside the city of Kirkuk, he said, about 165 miles (266 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

The Iraqi government hopes the militants can also be beaten back elsewhere.

"This is not the end, we are very confident that we will be able to correct the path and to overcome mistakes," the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on its website.

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.

It is capable of fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on one hand, fellow radicals on another and the Iraqi government on top of that -- an indication of the depth to which the group has established itself in the region, experts have said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning for Iraq. Terrorist activity and violence, it said, are at "levels unseen since 2007."

CNN's Faith Karimi, Salma Abdelaziz, Hamdi Alkhshali, Yousuf Basil, Jim Acosta, Jason Hanna and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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