Obama says Iraq needs to solve its own problems, but the US will do its part (LIVE BLOG)

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UPDATE: 6/13/14 4:30 PM ET

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UPDATE: 6/13/14 3:45 PM ET

What Iraq's crisis means for oil prices

Reuters — Escalating violence in Iraq drove crude oil prices to nine-month highs on Friday while damping the appetite for risk, even as bullish news from the US tech sector lifted shares on Wall Street and helped buoy stocks in global equity markets.

Brent crude edged above $113 a barrel, up more than $4 this week, on concerns that an insurgency in Iraq could trigger civil war and eventually crimp oil exports.

"The market in general is trying to assess the risks on Iraq," said Olivier Jakob at Petromatrix consultancy.

GlobalPost's Unraveler, Michael Moran, tackles what the Iraq crisis means for oil in plain English:

The pre-crisis assumptions — that Iraq was volatile but making steady if erratic progress toward reclaiming its place as a reliable Top 5 oil producing state — is no longer “priced in” by oil traders.

In effect, the new price assumes Iraq’s supplies may or may not get to market, and thus global demand will have to be met by others who can charge more.

And that leads us to the “bad people.”

Smiles abound today in Russia, Venezuela, Iran and other OPEC outposts as a long period of low prices suddenly ends. The past three years, roughly equating to the period since the US withdrew from Iraq, have featured a return to the relative stability of the 1990s for global oil prices, if not the low dollar amounts. (Sorry folks, $20-a-barrel oil, a phenomenon that helped drive the Clinton-era US economy, ain’t coming back).

But after the invasion of Iraq took the country's important reserves off the market — coupled with soaring demand in China, India and other emerging markets — prices rose quickly, spiking at the start of the global financial crisis in 2009 at nearly $140 per barrel.

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE: 6/13/14 1:40 PM ET

If ISIL had its way... this is how the Middle East would look

This useful map from The Wall Street Journal shows ISIL's territorial aspirations:

As The Journal put it, "It seeks to impose its vision of a single radical Islamist state stretching from the Mediterranean coast of Syria through modern Iraq, the region of the Islamic Caliphates established in the seventh and eighth centuries."

UPDATE: 6/13/14 1:23 PM ET

More details from Obama's statement

Reuters — President Barack Obama said on Friday he will take several days to review options for how the United States can help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, saying any action would need significant involvement by Iraq itself.

"The United States is not simply going involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together," Obama said, making it clear that he would not send US troops back into combat in Iraq.

"We are not going to be able to do it for them," he added. The threat by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Iraq poses a danger to the people of Iraq and also, potentially Americans, Obama told reporters at the White House.

"This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland," Obama said.

Obama said the insurgency so far has not caused major disruptions to oil supplies from Iraq, but that if insurgents took control of refineries, other oil producers in the Middle East would need to help "pick up the slack."

"That will be part of the consultations that will be taking place during the course of this week," Obama said.

UPDATE: 6/13/14 12:42 PM ET

The significance of Sisitani's call to arms

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued an urgent call to arms for Shias this morning through his representative. He said those "capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal" (as translated by Reuters).

The New York Times explains the significance of this:

"Ayatollah Sistani has enormous stature among Shiites, but he is also respected by Sunnis and members of other groups, in part because in 2006, in the darkest days of sectarian fighting in Iraq, he refrained from inflammatory language and repeatedly reached out to Sunnis, Kurds, the country’s Christians and other minorities."

"The ayatollah’s plea was directed at all Iraqis, but it was most likely to be heeded by Shiites, which could widen sectarian divisions in the country even further."

Here are some photos showing Iraq's new volunteers and recruits:

UPDATE: 6/13/14 12:20 PM ET

Iraq has to solve its own problems, says Obama

President Barack Obama gave a brief statement at noon on Friday about the situation in Iraq. He categorically said that the US would not be sending any troops into combat, adding that any action taken by the United States would need to be accompanied by compromise from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and neighboring countries.

He reiterated that America has an interest in not allowing ISIL to gain a foothold in Iraq, but said that it was up to Iraq to solve its own problems as a sovereign nation.

Obama appeared frustrated as he talked about the money and training the United States "poured into these Iraqi security forces" who then turned and fled in the face of ISIL's advance. He said such actions pointed to a serious problem with morale.

He added that though events on the ground were moving quickly, the United States discussions with the Iraqi government would take a few days.

UPDATE: 6/13/14 10:25 AM ET

Saudi prince says Iraq situation might see 'Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting with American drones to kill Iraqis'

Reuters — A senior Saudi prince blamed the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki for the loss of wide areas of northern Iraq to Islamist militants, saying Baghdad had failed to stop them joining forces with former Baathists from the Saddam Hussein era.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief who broadly reflects official thinking in Riyadh, said the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) insurgency should have come as no surprise.

"The situation in the Anbar area of Iraq has been brewing and boiling for some time and the Iraqi government seemed to be not only inactive in putting down the boiling temperature there but also in some cases seem to have been encouraging events there to spill over," he told a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Rome.

He said ISIL — Sunni Muslims like the Baathist elite of Saddam's rule — did not appear to have enough strength on its own to make the inroads it had, with media reports suggesting it had no more than 1,500-3,000 fighters.

"The conclusion I come to is that those numbers were simply added to, not only by the tribal configurations in that area but also by former Baathists and other groups that have been operating in that part of Iraq not from yesterday but from the time of the American occupation of Iraq (in 2003)," he said.

The prince said the situation in Iraq was changing so swiftly that it was impossible to say what would happen in the coming days and weeks. But he said it could lead to some unexpected outcomes if the United States became involved in the fighting three years after its occupation of Iraq ended in 2011.

"One of the distinct potential ironies that may come about is to see Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting with American drones to kill Iraqis," he said. "That is something that will boggle the mind and make one wonder where we are going."

UPDATE: 6/13/14 9:45 PM ET

Hundreds were killed, some summarily executed says UN human rights spokesman

Reuters — Hundreds of people were killed, many of them summarily executed, after Sunni Islamist militants overran the Iraqi city of Mosul this week, UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said on Friday.

Iraqi government forces had stopped people at checkpoints and prevented them fleeing Mosul as ISIL militants took it over, he said. Now ISIL was using its own checkpoints to hunt down anyone associated with the Iraqi government.

"The full extent of civilian casualties is not yet known but reports received by UNAMI, the UN mission in Iraq, to this point suggest that the number of people killed in recent days may run into the hundreds and the number of wounded is said to be approaching 1,000," he told a news briefing in Geneva.

UNAMI has its own network of contacts and had interviewed some of the 500,000 who fled Mosul, he said. A further 40,000 people were estimated to have fled from Tikrit and Samara, according to the International Organization for Migration.

"We've received reports of the summary execution of Iraqi army soldiers during the capture of Mosul and of 17 civilians in one particular street in Mosul city on June 11," Colville said.

"There was also the execution of a court employee in the Dawasa area in central Mosul and the execution of 12 people in Dawasa who were believed to have been serving with the Iraq security services or possibly with members of the police."

The "great majority" of the militants were Iraqis, Colville said, citing UNAMI reports.

Prisoners released by the militants from Mosul prison had been looking to exact revenge on those responsible for their incarceration and some went to Tikrit and killed seven former prison officers there, Colville said.

"We've also had reports suggesting that government forces have also committed excesses, in particular the shelling of civilian areas on 6 and 8 June in Mosul, resulting in a large number of civilian casualties," he said.

"There are claims that up to 30 civilians may have been killed during this shelling," he said.

"We also received reports that government forces were at one point not allowing people to leave from Mosul as they tried to do so and people were actually being turned back from checkpoints on the outskirts of the city."

UPDATE: 6/13/14 7:45 AM ET

Shia cleric's aide calls on people to take up arms

Reuters — A representative of Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged people in a sermon at Friday prayers to take up arms and defend their country from mostly Sunni insurgents.

Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai, who was delivering the sermon at prayers in the city of Kerbala, holy to Iraq's majority Shias, said those killed fighting the militants would be martyrs.

"People who are capable of carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense of their country... should volunteer to join the security forces to achieve this sacred goal," Karbalai said.

In response, worshippers chanted "Labbeik Ya Hussein," meaning they would act at the behest of Imam Hussein, who is buried in a shrine in Kerbala.

UPDATE: 6/13/14 7:10 AM ET

ISIL puts Syria fighting on hold for Iraq

Reuters — The Syria branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has put fighting on hold in Syria while it brings in weapons seized inside neighboring Iraq, a monitoring group that tracks the violence said on Friday.

ISIL, a Sunni Islamist splinter of al Qaeda, has battled rival rebel groups in Syria for months and clashed occasionally with President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

But its fighters appear to hold back in Syria this week, especially in their eastern stronghold near the Iraqi border, while their Iraqi wing was making rapid military gains.

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that ISIL may have negotiated a truce with rival rebel brigades in Syria, although it was still laying siege to parts of the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, where Assad's forces and al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front rebels are also dug in.

"(ISIL) has not being fighting for four days. We don't know why exactly. There is only some fighting northeast of Aleppo," Abdulrahman told Reuters by telephone.

Middle East and Africa Editor Heather Horn points out in her "Meanwhile in Syria" blog that there has been some speculation about the relationship between ISIL and Assad:

Not only has Iraq's army turned in a poor showing, but, as former UN special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi noted in an interview with Der Spiegel on Sunday, there is some speculation that Assad's forces in Syria may have refrained from attacking ISIL in order to prove a point: to make ISIL the only alternative to Assad, and let that fact scare Syrians and the West into submission.

In fact, following ISIL's gains in Iraq Assad smugly announced that "the United States and the West have started to send signs of change. Terrorism is now on their soil." (Also, as has been pointed out in multiple publications recently, the Assad regime is actually buying oil from ISIL, which has seized control of a number of key refineries.) 

UPDATE: 6/13/14 6:25 AM ET

Militants take two more towns in Iraq overnight

Reuters — Sunni Islamist militants gained more ground in Iraq overnight, moving into two towns in the eastern province of Diyala, while US President Barack Obama considered military strikes to halt their advance towards the capital Baghdad.

After security forces abandoned their posts, security sources said the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the insurgents, along with several villages around the Himreen mountains, which have long been a hideout for militants.

Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran the northern city of Mosul earlier this week and have since pressed south towards Baghdad in an onslaught against the Shia-led government.

The Kurds, who run their own autonomous region in the north, have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their territory, taking control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas outside the formal boundary of their enclave.

Kurdish peshmerga forces also deployed men to secure their political party offices in Jalawla before the insurgents arrived in the town. There were no confrontations between them.

The Iraqi army fired artillery at Saadiya and Jalawla from the nearby town of Muqdadiya, sending dozens of families fleeing towards Khaniqin near the Iranian border, security sources said.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 5:30 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed. We will pick up coverage again tomorrow.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 5:20 PM ET

There are no good options for the US to aid Iraq

Spencer Ackerman writes for the Guardian, "To call the [Obama] administration reluctant to re-involve itself in Iraq is a severe understatement. After a lightning-fast movement that left the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – a group formally excommunicated from al-Qaida – in control of a substantial amount of Sunni Iraq, Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, vaguely said the US would "ramp up" its support for Iraq."

Here are Obama's comments from earlier in the day:

UPDATE: 6/12/14 4:40 PM ET

ISIL's origins and aims

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, shed some light on ISIL's origins and aims.

From the middle of 2012 to the middle of last year, ISIL focused on "re-strengthening the senior leadership and building up the younger recruitment base," Lister told GlobalPost.

"By mid-2013, [ISIL] had become a military organization capable of carrying out intensive operations across Iraq, including in key urban areas seemingly at will."

Even though ISIL is an off-shoot of Al Qaeda, the two groups are now "total rivals, with both organizations frequently accusing the other of being illegitimate and not sufficiently religious."

Read the full piece, with more information on the group's shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has a $10 million bounty on his head.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 4:25 PM ET

Militants take two more towns in Iraq overnight

Reuters — Obama said on Thursday he was considering "all options" to support Iraq's Shia Muslim-dominated central government that took full control when the US occupation ended in 2011, eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam.

"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.

"In our consultations with the Iraqis, there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily," he said. A US defense official said the United States had been flying surveillance drones over Iraq to help it fight ISIL.

US officials later said that US ground forces would not return to Iraq.

But Obama said military action alone was no panacea against ISIL. He alluded to long-standing Western complaints that Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done little to heal sectarian rifts that have left many of Iraq's minority Sunnis, cut out of power since Saddam's demise, aggrieved and keen for revenge.

"This should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this," Obama said.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 3:50 PM ET

Kerry says US is 'in direct touch' with Iraqi prime minister

Reuters — Washington is deeply concerned about the violence in Iraq and US President Barack Obama is prepared to take "key decisions in short order" to help Iraq's government tackle a growing insurgency, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

"We are deeply concerned about what is happening in Iraq," Kerry said during a brief appearance with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the State Department.

"We are not concerned and waiting. We are providing assistance and are in direct touch with Prime Minister Maliki" and other leaders, Kerry said in his first public remarks on the recent violence in Iraq.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 2:45 PM ET

And what about the oil?

Reuters — The UN Security Council was expected to meet later on Thursday. Iraq's ambassador to France said it would call for weapons and air support: "We need equipment, extra aviation and drones," Fareed Yasseen said on French radio.

The Council "must support Iraq, because what is happening is not just a threat for Iraq but the entire region."

The global oil benchmark jumped about $2 on Thursday, as concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies from the OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are in the largely Shia areas in the south and were "very, very safe," oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.

ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the main oil refinery which meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel. Luaibi said the refinery itself was still in government hands but late on Thursday police and an engineer inside the plant said insurgents were surrounding it.

Foreign Policy thinks Americans are about to feel the impact of the events in Iraq on their wallets.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 1:30 PM ET

The confluence of two conflicts

UPDATE: 6/12/14 1:20 PM ET

Another regional player has now entered the fray: Iran

The mess in Iraq is already a multi-national mess, because of its proximity to, and affect on, the Syrian civil war. Most of the militants taking over cities in Iraq are part of the same group, ISIL, that has been fighting against Syrian government forces and more moderate Syrian rebels.

Turkey became involved on Tuesday when dozens of its nationals were taken hostage by ISIL at the Turkish consulate in Mosul.

Another regional player has now entered the fray: Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's Revolutionary Guard forces have been deployed to fight against ISIL.

Iran has deployed Revolutionary Guard forces to fight al Qaeda-inspired militants that have overrun a string of Iraqi cities, and it has helped Iraqi troops win back control of most of Tikrit, Iranian security sources said.

Two battalions of the Quds Forces, the elite overseas branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps that have long operated in Iraq, have come to the aid of the besieged, Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, they said.

Combined Iraqi-Iranian forces had retaken control across 85% of Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and Iranian security sources.

Iranian forces are also reportedly helping guard Baghdad and the cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Journal cites an anonymous Iranian army general saying Iran also has troops posted along the border it shares with Iraq and has promised to bomb the militants if they come within 62 miles of it.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 12:45 PM ET

Obama hasn't ruled anything out with regard to Iraq

Reuters — President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he is looking at all options in helping the Iraqi government face down a growing insurgency.

"I don't rule anything out," Obama said when asked whether the United States is considering drone strikes or any other action to stop the insurgency.

Obama, speaking to reporters at the White House as he met Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said the United States has an interest in making sure jihadists do not gain a foothold in Iraq.

He said there will be short-term immediate actions that need to be done militarily in Iraq, and that his national security team is looking at all options. He said the United States is prepared to take military action when its national security interests are threatened.

Also on Thursday, US Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to discuss the country's deepening security crisis, a US official said.

No details were immediately available about the conversation, which comes as a militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has seized broad swaths of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city.

The White House signaled on Wednesday that it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces to help them deal with the insurgency rather than to meet what one US official said were past Iraqi requests for US air strikes against the militants.

Biden has often served as US President Barack Obama's point-man on Iraq, and maintains close ties to the country's top officials.

On the other side of the aisle...

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said Obama was "taking a nap." More here, at the Associated Press.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 12:35 PM ET

Iraqi forces reportedly strike Tikrit, while ISIL may have helicopters

Agence France-Presse — Iraqi forces launched at least four air strikes on militants occupying ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's palace compound in the city of Tikrit on Thursday, witnesses said.

It was not immediately clear whether the strikes against the militants, who took the city a day before, were launched by helicopters or planes.

AFP also reported that two helicopters seized by militants flew over Mosul today, citing witnesses. This would be the first time ISIL has obtained aircraft and American Humvees. Several photos floated around social media claiming to show American equipment in the hands of ISIL, but were unconfirmed.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 12:25 PM ET

The maps are changing by the hour

But, here is an up-to-date map from BBC News to give you an idea of how much territory ISIL and its allies hold. Or, put another way, how much territory Iraq's security forces do not hold:

UPDATE: 6/12/14 12:10 PM ET

It's not just ISIL in Iraq... they have allies of convenience as well

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, points out that while media may be referring to this as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) seizing territory in Iraq, it's not them alone.

Hassan Hassan, writing in the UAE's newspaper The National, also highlighted ISIL's strategy of winning over sympathizers, if not allies.

In Iraq, the revival of the group since it was essentially wiped out in the wake of the country’s civil war in 2006 and 2007 was made possible in large part due the imprudent policies of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. The biased anti-terror laws as well as the tendency to employ sectarian rhetoric in military campaigns against militancy in Sunni areas, as he did in his speech in December, have estranged the Sunni population, which has played into ISIL’s hands.

These policies lead Sunnis, even while they dislike ISIL, to feel they have no stake in fighting ISIL or resisting its presence because the government is just as bad. Additionally, there is a growing sense among Shiites that they have no stake in fighting in Sunni areas and leaving their areas exposed to danger. That leaves the Iraqi government forces with little appetite to face a brutal and resilient militia.

The full analysis can be found here.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 11:35 AM ET

Footage of Iraqis fleeing Mosul

This raw footage from the Associated Press shows Iraqis fleeing Mosul.

The armed guards seen here are the Kurdish peshmerga. Most of the Iraqis displaced from Mosul fled to Erbil in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. According to the Guardian, there are some 35,000 peshmerga incorporated in Iraq's security forces. Estimates of peshmerga outside Iraq's security forces range from 80,000 to triple that figure.

As reported earlier today, the Kurdish forces now control Kirkuk.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 10:20 AM ET

Iraqi air force bombs insurgent positions

Reuters — The Iraqi air force bombed insurgent positions in and around the northern city of Mosul on Thursday, footage aired on state television showed.

Mosul was overrun on Tuesday by Sunni insurgents who have since moved south towards the Iraqi capital, overrunning the city of Tikrit and other towns on the way in an onslaught against the Shia-led government.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 8:50 AM ET

Iraq wants more military aid from UN Security Council, says envoy

Reuters — Iraq's ambassador to France called on the UN Security Council to approve extra military aid for Baghdad, including air and drone support, when it meets in New York later on Thursday.

"We need equipment, extra aviation and drones," Fareed Yasseen said when asked on France Inter radio what Iraq wanted from the Council.

"It must support Iraq because what is happening is not just a threat for Iraq but the entire region."

Sunni rebels from an Al Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country at Baiji, making further gains in a rapid military advance against the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

The militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, also hold the northern city of Mosul, advancing their aim of creating a Sunni Caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.

Yasseen said as far as he knew the Iraqi government had not yet asked the United States to launch air strikes on Islamist militants who appeared to be marching towards Baghdad.

"The US will only launch airstrikes if the Iraqi government asks them to, and if that happens it means it was necessary," he said.

He said it appeared the Islamist advance had been stalled and Iraqi special forces were now stabilizing the situation north of the capital.

"What I have heard is their advance has been stopped. Special forces have been deployed and are playing their role. They have secured Samarra and the big Baiji refinery. These two regions are stabilized."

France's foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters Paris was consulting with regional and international powers on the situation in Iraq and would confer with its allies at the Security Council on Thursday.

"The situation in Iraq is extremely worrying and poses a serious threat to the stability of the entire region," Nadal told reporters.

"It is important that in the current situation all Iraqi political forces act concordantly and in unity."

UPDATE: 6/12/14 8:25 AM ET

No state of emergency because parliament failed to reach a quorum

Reuters — Iraq's parliament failed to reach a quorum on Thursday for a vote on declaring a nationwide state of emergency as Sunni insurgents advanced on Baghdad.

Most of those boycotting parliament were from Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish factions, who oppose giving extraordinary powers to Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 8:10 AM ET

Kurds take Kirkuk as militants sweep toward Iraq's capital

Reuters — Iraqi Kurds took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday after government forces abandoned their posts in the face of a sweeping Sunni Islamist rebel push towards Baghdad that threatens Iraq's future as a unified state.

Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, swept into bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army, a peshmerga spokesman said.

"The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," said Jabbar Yawar. "No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now."

Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historical capital, and peshmerga units were already present in an uneasy balance with government forces.

The swift move by their highly organized security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by fighters of the Al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has redrawn Iraq's map.

Since Tuesday, black clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq's second biggest city Mosul and Tikrit, home town of former dictator 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.

The army of the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad has essentially fled in the face of the onslaught, abandoning buildings and weapons to the fighters who aim to create a strict Sunni Caliphate on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier.

The stunning advance of ISIL, effectively seizing northern Iraq's main population centers in a matter of days, is the biggest threat to Iraq since US troops withdrew in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in fear.

Read more at Reuters.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 8:00 AM ET

Iraq privately asked the US to consider air strikes

Agence France-Presse — Iraqi officials have privately asked President Barack Obama's administration to weigh potential air strikes targeting militants, a Western official said Wednesday.

The Obama administration is weighing several possibilities to offer military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

But Baghdad has not yet formulated an official request, a US defense official said.

Faced with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's spectacular assault on Mosul and seizure of a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, Washington is committed to "working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL's continued aggression," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The Obama administration had long warned of the dangers posed by the militants now sweeping toward Baghdad, according to Psaki.

A US official said the Obama administration was considering sending "more weaponry" to Iraq after ISIL seized the cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict.

The United States has already expedited arms shipments to Iraq this year and ramped up training of Iraqi security forces, while Congress is mulling a request for a further $1 billion in military aid.

In January, Washington sold 24 Apache attack helicopters to Baghdad, as well as about 300 anti-tank Hellfire missiles and two of some 36 F-16 fighter aircraft, a Pentagon spokesman said. Some of the arms have been delivered and others should be on their way in the coming months.

The new $1 billion includes provisions for around 200 Humvee vehicles and 24 AT-6C Texan II aircraft, but it may take months to get lawmakers' approval.

Since US forces left Iraq in late 2011, Washington has provided training assistance to Iraq's military for counterterrorism missions, including in Jordan since the start of the year.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 7:10 AM ET

UPDATE: 6/12/14 7:00 AM ET

ISIL is reportedly less than 60 miles north of Baghdad

Agence France-Presse — Jihadists were pushing toward Baghdad Thursday after capturing a town only 56 miles to its north, in a lightning three-day offensive the Iraqi government has failed to stop.

Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized the town of Dhuluiyah, a municipal councillor, a police colonel and witnesses told AFP by telephone.

The nearby Muatassam area has also fallen to militants, the municipal council member and witnesses said.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised that the battle would "rage" on Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is considered one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, the SITE Intelligence Group said Wednesday.

"Do not relent against your enemy... The battle is not yet raging, but it will rage in Baghdad and Karbala," Adnani said, according to a SITE translation of an audio statement.

On Wednesday, the militants were repulsed in heavy fighting when they tried to enter Samarra, to the north, bypassing it and heading to Dhuluiyah.

Army Staff Lieutenant General Sabah al-Fatlawi said soldiers and "elite forces" backed by air strikes defeated a "fierce attack by ISIL members," and that troops were regrouping to counter attack.

Samarra is mainly Sunni Arab but is home to a shrine revered by the country's Shiite majority, a site whose bombing by Al-Qaeda in 2006 sparked a Shiite-Sunni conflict that killed tens of thousands.

ISIL militants have spearheaded a major offensive that began early Tuesday and has since overrun the entire northern province of Nineveh and significant parts of Kirkuk to its southeast and Salaheddin to its south.

UPDATE: 6/12/14 6:00 AM ET

The UN Security Council will meet concerning Iraq

Agence France-Presse — The UN Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss Iraq in a sign of growing international alarm as a lightening offensive by heavily armed jihadists sweeps closer to Baghdad.

Diplomats say the closed consultations will begin at 11:30 a.m. and will include a briefing by video link from the UN special representative to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier urged the international community to unite behind Iraq as the country confronts the "serious security challenge."

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began its spectacular assault in Mosul late Monday, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes.

The speed with which ISIL and its allies have advanced after their seizure on Tuesday of Mosul — a city of two million people — has sent alarm bells ringing in Western capitals.

The UN chief strongly condemned the surge in violence and warned that "terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path toward democracy in Iraq," his spokesman said.

Ban also called for the immediate, unconditional and safe release of 49 Turkish citizens kidnapped from their consulate in Mosul, including the consul general and several staff.

"The secretary-general calls on the international community to send a clear message that terrorist acts are unacceptable and those responsible must be held to account," the spokesman said.

The United Nations says more than 2,500 families are displaced inside Mosul, mostly living in schools and mosques, and an estimated 100,000 have entered Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR has mobilized tents with essential relief items, including water and sanitation, being delivered.

The UN says the displacements complicate "an already severe displacement crisis" that saw hundreds of thousands of people leave their homes since January due to unrest in Anbar province.

"Resources are extremely limited," Ban's spokesman told reporters, saying that donor funding to displaced families has reached only 10 percent of the $103 million required.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 5:00 PM ET

Signing off

This live blog is now closed. We will pick up coverage again tomorrow.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 4:55 PM ET

Water for Iraq's displaced

UPDATE: 6/11/14 3:40 PM ET

Militants were rebuffed from Samarra

Agence France-Presse has this on the latest:

After Tikrit's fall, the operation spread down the main highway towards Baghdad, with militants battling security forces on the northern outskirts of Samarra, just 110 kilometres (70 miles) from the capital.

Iraqiya state television said security forces launched air strikes on them, and witnesses said the clashes ended without the militants entering the city.

It was not immediately clear what became of the attackers.

Militants had already tried to seize the city late last week, and were only halted by a massive deployment of troops, backed by tribal militia and air power.

Although Samarra too is mainly Sunni Arab, it is super sensitive for the government as it is home to a shrine revered by the country's Shiite majority.

AFP's full report is here.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 3:30 PM ET

There's the 'good' news and the bad news...

On the one hand, the outgoing and incoming US ambassadors to Iraq are optimistic:

“Although the news from Mosul is very bad, I think one positive aspect from this may be that the groups are indeed coming together to address this challenge,” Stuart E Jones, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the US ambassador to Iraq, told a Senate committee. “At least we’re seeing signs of that in the last 24 hours.”

On the other hand, Iraqi officials reported this:

"Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers - roughly 30,000 men - simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters."


UPDATE: 6/11/14 3:10 PM ET

ISIL's end goal... a cross-border Islamic caliphate

ISIL's shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Badhdadi has a dream — and with ISIL's recent gains in Iraq, it seems closer than ever. Al-Baghdadi has envisaged "carving out his own caliphate stretching across the Levant," according to The Daily Beast.

Analysts told Agence France-Presse that the territory ISIL holds now makes this a real possibility:

"The loss of Nineveh province creates a corridor of militancy between Anbar (province), Mosul and the Syrian border which will make it easier to smuggle weapons, funding and fighters between the different battle fronts," said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group.

Anbar, south of Nineveh, is another province where anti-government fighters hold areas including all of one city and part of a second. Jihadists also hold significant territory in eastern Syria.

"ISIL and its (earlier) manifestations have always wanted to control territory and create an Islamist emirate, in which they could impose (Islamic) law and establish training and attack planning centers to maintain the momentum of battle," Drake said.

"The civil war in Syria gave these militants the chance to secure such a territory. Their success in doing so likely emboldened their supporters who realized it was an attainable target."


"The armed groups want to establish an Islamic state" that would include Mosul, the provinces of Salaheddin, Diyala and Anbar, plus Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in Syria, said Aziz Jabr, a political science professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University.

He also noted that "the fall of a province like Nineveh represents a very dangerous threat to the national security of Iraq."

Read the full piece here.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 2:45 PM ET

'We are fighting devils'

Earlier, we mentioned the Iraqi army's troubles, including mass desertions and low morale. They also seem to have been overwhelmed by how well-equipped and organized ISIL militants are. This is part of a report from Reuters today:

Security sources said ISIL militants on Wednesday drove more than 60 vehicles into Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, occupying the provincial government headquarters and raising the black flag of ISIL.

"Our forces were caught by surprise, they never expected ISIL would use police and army Humvee vehicles, we mistook them for government forces and it was too late to stop them," said a police captain who fled from Tikrit to Samarra.

"We are fighting devils and not ordinary people."

Around 100 ISIL fighters held mass prayers in central Tikrit after taking control.

The narrative from Iraqi officials was markedly different. The Speaker of the Council of Representatives of Iraq Osama Nujaifi, said, “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists.”

UPDATE: 6/11/14 2:10 PM ET

A concerned US offers 'appropriate assistance' to Iraq

Reuters — The United States on Wednesday expressed concern about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and pledged "any appropriate assistance" to help the Iraqi government fend off increasing attacks from Sunni militants.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States believed that Iraq's Baiji oil refinery, the country's largest, remained under control of the Iraqi government after militants overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday.

"Our understanding at this point is that the refinery remains in control of the government of Iraq," Psaki told a daily briefing for reporters.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 2:05 PM ET

Meanwhile... in Syria

ISIL, which evolved out of Al Qaeda in Iraq before breaking with its parent organization earlier this year, has been fighting in Syria for months. Welcomed at first, ISIL faced a backlash from Syrians and moderate rebels due to its extreme methods including torture and public executions. (In fact, moderate rebels and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra have been diverted in recent months from fighting Syrian government forces, and drawn into costly clashes with ISIL.)

As it rapidly seizes territory in Iraq, ISIL seems to be capturing equipment and sending it back to Syria:

As former Iraqi national security advisor Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie told GlobalPost back in March, "It is one battlefield, western Iraq and eastern Syria."

This map, from the Institute for the Study of War, shows ISIL's latest gains in both Iraqi and Syrian territory.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 1:35 PM ET

Turkey calls for an emergency NATO meeting

Reuters — Turkey has called for an emergency meeting of NATO to discuss the security situation in Iraq after militants took 80 Turkish citizens hostage during a lightning advance, a Turkish foreign ministry official said.

Sunni insurgents from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran the city of Tikrit on Wednesday and closed in on Iraq's biggest oil refinery, making further gains against the Shi'ite-led government.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 1:30 PM ET

In ISIL's eyes, Baghdad is next

The New York Times described ISIL's gains in Iraq as a "lightning advance," and cited reports — not yet confirmed — that ISIL-allied militants were fighting loyalist forces near Samarra, just 70 miles north of Baghdad.

The Washington Post said, "Footage aired by the al-Hurra television station Wednesday evening showed fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) patrolling the streets of Dhululiyah, 60 miles north of the capital, though it was unclear whether they had also seized full control of the small town."

UPDATE: 6/11/14 12:55 PM ET

ISIL has managed to anger Turkey

Reuters — Militants from an Al Qaeda splinter group are holding 80 Turkish citizens seized in two separate incidents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

The ministry said 49 of its citizens had been seized at its consulate-general and transferred to another part of the city, while 31 others — truck drivers who were abducted on Tuesday — were being held hostage at a power station in Mosul.

"Certain militant groups in Mosul have been directly contacted to ensure the safety of diplomatic staff," a Turkish government source said, adding there was no immediate information on the status of the diplomats.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting with the Undersecretary of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay to discuss the developments, Turkish media reported.

Turkey will retaliate if any of its citizens and diplomats held by militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul are harmed, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday.

"Right now we are engaged in calm crisis management, considering our citizens' security. This should not be misunderstood. Any harm to our citizens and staff would be met with the harshest retaliation," Davutoglu told reporters in New York in comments broadcast on Turkish television.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 12:35 PM ET

An army in shambles, in flight

"We have lost Mosul this morning,"a colonel at a military command center in Iraq's second largest city told Reuters yesterday. "Army and police forces left their positions and ISIL terrorists are in full control."

"It’s a total collapse of the security forces."

How was so much territory lost so quickly? Reports from the ground suggest the Iraqi army, even with superior firepower and manpower at its disposal, has turned out to be no match for ISIL.

According to the BBC, the Iraqi government is estimated to have 930,000 security forces at its disposal.

But when ISIL militants overran Mosul on Tuesday, reports said Iraqi forces discarded their weapons and uniforms and fled along with civilians.

Here are some pictures tweeted by The Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly:

The New York Times reported that the Iraqi army was suffering from a high death toll, desertions, terrible morale. "In a desperate bid to stem the losses, the military was reduced to bombing its own bases to avoid surrendering more weapons to the enemy," said the Times.

Deserters "spoke of nerve-racking patrols in remote areas or in contested cities, surrounded, at times, by hostile residents. They searched booby-trapped houses and traveled roads full of bombs. Most terrifying, though, they said, were the snipers."

In addition to deserters, there might be another factor helping ISIL overcome Iraqi security forces. ITV News cited a local journalist saying the militants were receiving help from other armed Sunni Islamist groups like the Naqshbandi Army and Ansar al-Sunnah Army.

"The Naqshbandi Army is made of Islamist fighters, many of whom are believed to be former Iraqi army officers from the era of late president Saddam Hussein," ITV News reported.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 11:45 AM ET

As feared, the insurgents now have control of some of Iraq's oil fields

Reuters cited security sources saying militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant had driven into Baiji, following the modus operandi seen in Mosul: freeing prisoners and burning buildings.

"The militants offered safe passage to some 250 men guarding the refinery on the outskirts of Baiji, about 200 kilometres south of Mosul, on condition they leave," Reuters reported.

Baiji resident Jasim al-Qaisi told Reuters, "Yesterday at sunset some gunmen contacted the most prominent tribal sheikhs in Baiji via cellphone and told them: 'We are coming to die or control Baiji, so we advise you to ask your sons in the police and army to lay down their weapons and withdraw before (Tuesday) evening prayer'."

The New York Times reported:

"Citizens in Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 110 miles south of Mosul, awoke Wednesday to find that government checkpoints had been abandoned and that insurgents, arriving in a column of 60 vehicles, were taking control of parts of the city without firing a shot, the security officials said."

UPDATE: 6/11/14 11:35 AM ET

What comes after Tikrit's fall?

ISIL hasn't broadcast its next moves as such, but this is the chatter among journalists following the situation:

Agence France-Presse's Sara Hussein:

UPDATE: 6/11/14 11:05 AM ET

Kurdish peshmerga and ISIL face off

UPDATE: 6/11/14 10:55 AM ET

Reports of ISIL urging security forces to lay down arms

And here's Associated Press:

UPDATE: 6/11/14 10:40 AM ET

Tikrit has fallen

"All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants," a police colonel told the AFP news agency.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 10:25 AM ET

Iraq will work with Kurdish forces to retake Mosul

Reuters — Baghdad will cooperate with Kurdish forces to try to drive militants out of Mosul, Iraq's foreign minister said on Wednesday, a day after an Al Qaeda splinter group seized the country's second biggest city.

"There will be closer cooperation between Baghdad and the regional Kurdistan government to work together and flush out these foreign fighters," Hoshyar Zebari said on the sidelines of a EU-Arab League meeting in Athens.

He did not give details about the cooperation between the two forces. The Kurdish peshmerga have long been a force in the jockeying between Shias, Kurds and Sunnis for influence and control of northern Iraqi oil fields.

Describing the fall of Mosul as "dramatic," Zebari called on all Iraqi leaders to come together to face the "serious, mortal" threat to the country.

"The response has to be soon," he said. "You cannot leave these people to stay there to entrench themselves for a long time."

Earlier on Wednesday, security sources said militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an offshoot of Al Qaeda, advanced into the oil refinery town of Baiji, setting the courthouse and police station on fire.

UPDATE: 6/11/14 10:15 AM ET

Parts of Tikrit were overrun, but has it fallen?

About an hour ago, Reuters sent out this alert:

Sunni insurgents overran parts of the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday, security sources said.

Tikrit, which is located 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, is the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Reports circulating on social media, not yet confirmed by officials, say Tikrit has fallen:

UPDATE: 6/11/14 7:15 AM ET

As many as half a million have fled Iraq's second largest city

The International Organization for Migration estimates as many as 500,000 Iraqis have fled the fighting in Mosul after militants either from ISIL or allied with it overran Iraq's second largest city yesterday.

People who fled the city said the fighters had announced they had "come to liberate" Mosul, according to the BBC.

"The situation is chaotic inside the city, and there is nobody to help us," said one government worker.

Agence France-Presse has more:

The violence in Mosul "has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians," the IOM said, adding that fighting restricted access to the main health campus grouping four hospitals.

"Some mosques have been converted to clinics to treat casualties," it said.

Witnesses reported that dozens of families continued to flee the city, but Abu Ahmed said: "I will remain in Mosul. This is my city in any case, and the city is calm now."

Bassam Mohammed, a 25-year-old university student, also said he would stay in Mosul.

"But I am afraid about freedoms, and I am especially afraid that they will impose new laws on us," Mohammed said.

UPDATE: 6/10/14 10:15 AM ET

Iraq declares state of emergency as militants overrun Mosul

Reuters Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked parliament to declare a state of emergency after Sunni Islamist insurgents seized control of most of the country's second largest city, Mosul.

Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their allies overran a military base and freed hundreds of prisoners early on Tuesday in a spectacular strike against the Shia-led Iraqi government.

The capture of the city of some two million by ISIL, Sunni Muslims waging sectarian war on both sides of the nearby Iraqi-Syrian border, adds to its grip on key western cities and followed four days of heavy fighting in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.

The battle, for the time being, seemed to be over, with police discarding uniforms and weapons and fleeing a city where the black flag of ISIL was flying over government buildings.

"We have lost Mosul this morning," said a colonel at a local military command center. "Army and police forces left their positions and ISIL terrorists are in full control.

"It’s a total collapse of the security forces."

A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of soldiers and policemen, some mutilated, littering the streets.

"We can't beat them. We can't. They are well trained in street fighting and we're not. We need a whole army to drive them out of Mosul," one officer told Reuters. "They're like ghosts: they appear, strike and disappear in seconds."

US is 'deeply concerned' by 'extremely serious' situation

The United States on Tuesday condemned the seizure of Mosul by Sunni Islamist insurgents and said it supported "a strong, coordinated response to push back against this aggression," offering assistance to the government of Iraq.

"The United States is deeply concerned about the events that have transpired in Mosul over the last 48 hours where elements of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL) have taken over significant parts of the city. The situation remains extremely serious," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Psaki added that senior US officials in both Washington and Baghdad were tracking events closely in coordination with Iraqi's Shia-led government as well as Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum including the Kurds.

She said US officials "support a strong, coordinated response to push back against this aggression." She said: "The United States will provide all appropriate assistance to the Government of Iraq under the Strategic Framework Agreement (between the two nations) to help ensure that these efforts succeed."

Insurgents take over provincial government headquarters

The insurgents overran the headquarters of the provincial government in Mosul late on Monday, making further gains after a fourth day of fighting.

Governor Atheel Nujaifi was trapped inside the building but managed to escape while police held back an assault by hundreds of militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and heavy machine guns mounted on vehicles.

The western side of Mosul is now in control of militants, who advanced southwards in the direction of a major army base where a military airport and top-security prison are located, three army officers told Reuters.

Earlier on Monday, Nujaifi made a televised plea to the city's inhabitants to fight militants who have been regaining ground in Iraq and last Friday moved into Mosul.

"I call on the men of Mosul to stand firm in their areas and defend them against the outsiders, and to form popular committees through the provincial council," said Nujaifi, the Iraqi flag draped behind him.

Police and local officials said the militants were using cranes to move blast walls into position and block roads to prevent the army from regaining control.

Several army officers said Iraqi forces were demoralized and no match for the militants from the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also active across the border in Syria.

"Without urgent intervention of more supporting troops Mosul could fall into their hands in a matter of days" said a senior security official from Nineveh operation center, adding that ISIL was only 3 kilometers from the Ghizlani military camp.

The fighting has already forced more than 4,800 families from their homes to other parts of the province and beyond, Iraqi deputy Migration and Displacement minister said.

Reports of jihadists seizing parts of Kirkuk

Jihadists seized five areas in Iraq's Kirkuk province on Tuesday, a police officer said, after the militants took control of all of another province to its west.

The militants took the Hawijah, Zab, Riyadh and Abbasi areas west of the city of Kirkuk, and Rashad and Yankaja to its south, Colonel Ahmed Taha said.

(Reporting by Raheem Salman and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Isabel Coles: Editing by John Stonestreet) (Reporting by Ziad al-Sinjary; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Isabel Coles and Cynthia Osterman) Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

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