US mulls air strikes as Iraq militants advance on Baghdad

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IraqKirkuk (Iraq), Jun 12 (AFP): Jihadists were pushing toward Baghdad today after capturing a town just hours to the north, as the US mulled air strikes in a bid to bolster Iraq’s collapsing security forces.

Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have spearheaded a major offensive that began late Monday, overrunning the northern province of Nineveh and significant parts of Kirkuk to its southeast and Salaheddin to its south.

This morning they were advancing on Baghdad, after seizing the town of Dhuluiyah just 90 kilometres away, witnesses and officials said, adding that the nearby Muatassam area has also fallen.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised the group would drive on to Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, in a statement carried by jihadists’ websites.

With militants closing in, Iraq’s parliament was to meet in emergency session today to consider a request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the president’s office to declare a state of emergency.

Doing so requires a two-thirds vote, making it unlikely to pass the sharply divided parliament, which has produced little significant legislation in years and is often poorly attended.

The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, at the start of the year. It has been a blow for Western governments that invested lives and money in the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

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.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was committed to “working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL’s continued aggression.”

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

And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was “no question” of British troops being sent back to Iraq.

The UN Security Council has called crisis talks for today, with diplomats saying closed consultations will begin at 11:30 am.

The militants overran Iraq’s second city Mosul on Tuesday before taking control of its surrounding province Nineveh and sweeping into Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces.

The fighters encountered little effective resistance from the army, with many soldiers discarding their uniforms and joining tens of thousands of civilians, many who fled towards the relative safety of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

Tikrit, hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein and capital of Salaheddin, fell yesterday as the jihadists and their allies captured a string of mainly Sunni Arab towns where resentment against the Shiite-led government runs deep.

The first sign of resistance came yesterday when the militants were repulsed in heavy fighting as they tried to enter Samarra, a mainly Sunni Arab that is home to a shrine revered by the country’s Shiite majority.

State television said security forces responded with air strikes. Residents said the fighting subsided without the jihadists managing to enter the city.

Instead, the gunmen pushed further south, where they Dhuluiyah.

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