Iraqi Kurdish forces took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk earlier Thursday, after government troops abandoned their posts in the face of a triumphant Sunni Islamist rebel march towards Baghdad that threatens Iraq's future as a unified state.
In Mosul, Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since ISIL fighters drove out of the desert and overran the northern metropolis. At Baiji, near Kirkuk, they surrounded Iraq's largest oil refinery.
At Mosul, which had a population close to two million before the week's events forced hundreds of thousands to flee, witnesses saw ISIL fly two helicopters over the parade, apparently the first time the militant group has obtained aircraft in years of waging insurgency on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier.
State television showed what it said was aerial footage of Iraqi aircraft firing missiles at insurgent targets in Mosul. The targets could be seen exploding in black clouds.
U.N. : NO IMMEDIATE BAGHDAD THREAT
The top U.N. official in Iraq told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday there was no immediate danger of violence spreading to Baghdad, but that the northern offensive by Islamist rebels posed a great threat to the country's sovereignty, diplomats said.
Nickolay Mladenov, head of the U.N. political mission in Iraq, briefed the council via video link on this week's sudden northern advance by fighters of the al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Iraqi Kurds took advantage of the chaos to swiftly seize control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.
"He was quite assured in that Baghdad is well protected and the government is in control, so there is ... no immediate danger of the violence spreading to Baghdad," said Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin after Mladenov's closed-door briefing.
But Mladenov had noted that there were concerns about the violence spreading beyond the north, Churkin added.
"It's a disaster," French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said after the meeting.
Churkin, president of the 15-member council for June, told reporters that the council expressed its unanimous support to the government and people of Iraq in their fight against terrorism.
"They strongly condemned all terrorist and extremist activities regardless of their motivation," he said. "They also stressed the importance of inclusive national dialogue."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who is currently visiting Jordan and Turkey, said in a statement that the violence by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant "is a clear security threat to Iraq and a growing threat to the region."
"The United States will continue working with the people of Iraq, regional partners, and international organizations to ensure that the resources and strategies needed to combat ISIL and other emerging terrorist groups are in place," she said.
Before briefing the Security Council, Mladenov met with Iraq's parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi.
"He expressed his concern for the grave situation, saying that the ongoing violence in parts of Iraq is the most severe threat to its security in years," U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York. "He reiterated the U.N.'s support for the Iraqi government in its efforts to fight against terrorism."
OBAMA RULES NOTHING OUT
"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," President Obama said when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in, however.
Obama said he was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders, who took full control when the U.S. occupation ended in 2011. "In our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily," he said.
But he also referred to longstanding U.S. complaints that Shi'ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to do enough to heal a sectarian rift that has left many in the big Sunni minority, ousted from power when U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge.
Later Thursday Vice President Joe Biden told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the United States is prepared to intensify and accelerate security support and cooperation with Iraq.
Biden, in a phone call to Maliki, expressed U.S. solidarity with Iraq in its fight against insurgents who have made gains against Iraqi forces in northern Iraq.
U.S. CONTRACTORS, ENGINEERS RELOCATED
U.S. contractors associated with U.S. military sales to Iraq are being relocated by their companies due to security concerns, the State Department said on Thursday.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to say how many contractors were being relocated and their location.
"We can confirm that U.S. citizens, under contract to the Government of Iraq, in support of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program in Iraq, are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area," Psaki said in a statement.
Top U.S. weapons maker Lockheed Martin Corp also said about 25 of its employees were being evacuated from the Balad area in northern Iraq as part of a larger effort to ensure their safety given growing violence in the region.
Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said the employees were in Iraq working with the Iraqi air force as it prepared to receive the first of 36 F-16 fighter jets, which are due to be ferried to the country later this year.
Rein said it was too soon to say if the arrival of the jets in the country would be delayed as a result of the violence.
"This is an unfolding situation," Rein said. "Those planes weren't due to ferry for a couple months anyway."