Refugees flee from clashes in Mosul to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq on Thursday. (AP)
Erbil (Iraq), June 12: Iraq’s fracturing deepened today as Kurdish forces poured into the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk after government troops fled, even as emboldened Sunni militants who seized two other important northern cities this week moved closer to Baghdad.
They also issued threats about advancing into the heavily Shia south and destroying the shrines there.
The rapidly unfolding developments came as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s entreaties for emergency powers stalled because of inaction by parliament, which seemed paralysed over the worst crisis to confront the country since it was convulsed by sectarian mayhem at the height of the American-led invasion nearly a decade ago. The inability or unwillingness of Maliki’s armed forces to hold their ground only compounded the crisis.
The American government’s apparent rejection of Maliki’s requests for airstrikes on the Sunni militants reflected a deep reluctance by the Obama administration to re-entangle the US militarily in Iraq. The last American forces withdrew from Iraq more than two years ago after a divisive war that cost the US nearly 4,500 military lives and more than $1 trillion.
But President Obama, offering his first detailed comments on the Iraq crisis, told reporters at the White House today that his national security advisers were examining “all options” on how to stop the Sunni militant advances in Iraq and that the Iraqi government would need help.
“I don’t rule out anything,” he said during an appearance with the visiting Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
Kurdish officials said today that their forces had taken full control of Kirkuk in northern Iraq as government troops abandoned their posts there. “The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.
Militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept across the porous border from Syria on Tuesday to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They have been driving towards the capital since then, capturing the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, seizing parts of the oil refinery city of Baiji and threatening Samarra, a city sacred to Shias just 112km north of Baghdad.
Unlike the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are disciplined and very loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state. The Kurds’ allegiance to the Shia Arab-led Iraqi central government is limited, but neither are they known to be allied with the Sunni Arab militants.
Many of the tens of thousands of Mosul residents who fled the militant takeover of the city have sought safety in Kurdish-controlled areas.
With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the centre of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad. The disappearance of the Iraqi army from the city today appeared to leave Kirkuk’s fate in the Kurds’ hands.
Some Kurdish politicians quickly sought to take advantage, arguing that it was a moment to permanently seize control of Kirkuk and surrounding lands they have long regarded as part of a Kurdish national homeland.
“I hope that the Kurdish leadership will not miss this golden opportunity to bring Kurdish lands in the disputed territories back under Kurdish control,” Shoresh Haji, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s parliament, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera. “It is a very sad situation for Mosul, but at the same time, history has presented us with only one or two other moments at which we could regain our territory, and this is an opportunity we cannot ignore.”
Yesterday, Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, was quoted as saying that the Kurdish minority would “work together” with Baghdad’s forces to “flush out these foreign fighters”. At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Zebari called the insurgents’ capture of Mosul and other cities “a serious, mortal threat”.