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al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa

BAGHDAD, June 12: Jihadists moved nearer to Baghdad Thursday after capturing a town just hours to the north, as President Barack Obama said Washington was exploring all options to save Iraq’s security forces from collapse. With the militants closing in on the capital, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of Kirkuk, an ethnically divided northern city they have sought to rule for decades against the objections of successive governments in Baghdad.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyhar Zebari acknowledged the security forces which Washington invested billions in training and equipping before withdrawing its own troops in 2011, had simply melted away. Obama said Iraq was going to need “more help from the United States and from the international community.” “Our national security team is looking at all the options... I don’t rule out anything,” he said. Washington is considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Resorting to such aircraft — used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in a highly controversial programme — would mark a dramatic shift in the US engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011. But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died during the conflict. And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he saw no role in Iraq for the Western alliance in the battle against the jihadists, whose hard core numbers no more than 15,000 fighters, according to Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

Officials say three planeloads of Americans are being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad to escape potential threats from a fast-moving insurgency. A current US official and a former senior Obama administration official say that means the American training mission at the air field in Balad has been grounded indefinitely. Twelve US personnel who were stationed at Balad were the first to be evacuated. Several hundred American contractors are still waiting to leave. They have been training Iraqi forces to use fighter jets and surveillance drones. Other US contractors at a tank training ground in the city of Taji are still continuing for now.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they refused to be named in discussing the sensitive situation. Germany called on its citizens Thursday to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, as Islamic insurgents push toward the capital. Germans should leave the governorates of Anbar, Ninevah and Salah al- Din, the Foreign Ministry said in a travel warning on its website. It also urged German citizens to temporarily leave Baghdad, and expressed concern about the situation in Diyala and Kirkuk governorates. Earlier Thursday, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had described the events in Iraq as a dramatic escalation. “The situation is alarming, because the fighting threatens to plunge not just Iraq but the entire region, which has been knocked out of balance by the war in Syria, further into violence and chaos,” Steinmeier told German daily Bild in an interview published online. The Foreign Ministry estimates that the number of Germans in Iraq runs in the low thousands, with many living permanently in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime - including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 US-led invasion and eluded US and Iraqi forces ever since. In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so. As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the UN Security Council scheduled consultations on the crisis.

The Islamic State aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It has been able to push deep into parts of the Iraqi Sunni heartland once controlled by US forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes. Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri.

The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al- Qaeda-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation. The State of Kuwait has started taking political, diplomatic and security steps through communications with more than one side to counter any possible threat due to the recent developments in Iraq. Jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have occupied various towns in Iraq and set free notorious prisoners; in addition to publication of the map which indicates the borders of their alleged state, in which Kuwait is part of.

On top of the Kuwaiti government’s recent moves is the phone call made by HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al- Mubarak to his Iraqi counterpart Nuri Al- Maliki, who briefed him on the security situation in Iraqi towns. Sheikh Jaber expressed ‘’confidence of Kuwait towards the ability of Iraqis to overcome these challenges’’. At the same time, Deputy Premier and the Minister of Defense Sheikh Khaled Al-Jarrah has affirmed that, ‘’Kuwait is monitoring the situation and it is militarily prepared to counter any situation locally or along the borders”. In the same context, First Deputy Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khaled Al-Jarrah has asserted ‘’the situation in Iraq is causing worries in the region.” He warned there will be dire consequences without collective response against terrorism in Iraq, considering it is worrisome not only for Kuwait but also other countries in the region. Speaking to Reuters, Sheikh Al-Jarrah stated that, “what is currently happening was expected, whereas Kuwait had warned in the past about the threats posed by extension of the Syrian crisis to other countries. Destruction will not just be in Syria, but it will extend to neighboring countries and the region”.

Sheikh Al-Jarrah pointed out, “the funding of fanaticism and terrorism is the source of concern for every country in the region due to the fact that threat to one country puts the security of the whole region in jeopardy.” Meanwhile, high-ranking governmental sources indicated Kuwait’s readiness to provide aid to Iraq if requested.

They stressed that Kuwait is closely following the Iraqi situation with concern, Regarding the security preparedness of Kuwait, official sources from Ministry of Interior revealed that monitoring of the land borders and border entry points have intensified and high-tech surveillance equipments have been installed to prevent infiltrations. Elsewhere, Predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran will combat the “violence and terrorism” of Sunni extremists who have launched an anti-government offensive in neighbouring Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani warned on Thursday. “This is an extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely,” Rouhani said live on state television.

The president did not elaborate on what steps Iran would take to help thwart a bid by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to push toward Baghdad after seizing several cities and towns to the north. But he said he would head to a meeting of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council immediately after his speech. That body decides on the Islamic state’s major foreign policy and security policies, and it would have to approve any military support Tehran might want to provide to Baghdad.

By: Raed Yusuf, Shawqi Mahmoud, Munaif Nayef and Nasser Qadeeh Al-Seyassah Staff and Agencies

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