NEW: Official: Contractors evacuated from Iraq base "due to security concerns"
Iraqi foreign minister says takeover of Mosul is a "major security setback"
The Iraqi army is now in full control of the city of Tikrit, state media reports
U.S. considering host of options in Iraq, but not ground troops
As radical Islamist militants surged through Iraq – and threatened its capital – U.S. President Barack Obama conceded the turbulent situation demanded significant assistance immediately and over the long-term for the Baghdad-based central government.
“It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community,” Obama said Thursday. “… I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothoold in either Iraq or Syria.”
The jihadists he is referring to belong to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which wants to establish an Islamic caliphate, or state, in the region. It’s already had significant success to date in Syria, where it has been engaged in the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and in Iraq, where its fighters recently took over the nation’s second-largest city of Mosul.
On Thursday, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani purportedly could be heard in an audio recording posted on the group’s media website. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the 17-minute audio statement or the time of its recording.
The voice implores fighters not to “give up a hand’s width of ground you’ve liberated,” as well as to expand the campaign.
“Continue your march as the battle is not yet raging,” the man says. “It will rage in Baghdad and Karbala. So be ready for it.”
The militants’ march has caught the world’s attention. That includes the United States, which led the 2003 invasion that resulted in the toppling of longtime leader Saddam Hussein. Since then, Iraq has seen instability and violence, though none, in recent years, rivals what is happening now.
As to what Washington may do to combat the Islamists, U.S. officials discussed bolstering ongoing efforts to send arms, equipment and intelligence information to help Iraq and its military.
Air strikes are among the options being considered, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. But there won’t be a repeat of a large U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil.
“We are not contemplating ground troops,” Carney said. “I want to be clear about that.”
Iraq claims victory in Tikrit
After days of stunning defeats, Iraq claimed a key victory Thursday.
Tikrit, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown, was under full control of the military Thursday, state-run Iraqiya TV said. Just a day earlier, it appeared to be in the hands of militants.
The Iraqi military carried out airstrikes overnight targeting the al-Ghazlany military base, just south of Mosul, where a group of ISIS militants was believed to be based, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said Thursday.
Speaking in London, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN on Thursday that the government has “taken a number of steps to push back the terrorists” but that the takeover of Mosul had been a “major security setback.”
He said the Iraqi army in the city had “collapsed, basically,” and commanders were fleeing north.
“The government has to take a … serious look at the makeup and the doctrine of the new Iraqi armed forces. You cannot run a country with such commanders.”
But Zebari also said there were “already indications” the militants were pulling out of Mosul, adding that the government was working with Kurdish regional powers to push them out.
Footage surfaced on social media sites Thursday purportedly showing ISIS militants parading heavy artillery through Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million.
Iraqi official: Nobody has called for U.S. troops
Zebari declined to give a clear answer when asked what assistance Iraq had requested from the United States.
But he said, “Nobody has called … for the introduction (of) American troops into Iraq.”
Zebari said Washington has been cooperative and has a responsibility to be proactive in Iraq’s fight against terrorism.
The United States has helped and can help with “a whole range of options,” including counterintelligence training and supplying equipment and munitions, he added.
Iraq’s parliament failed to hold an emergency session Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, as al-Maliki had requested, Iraqiya TV reported.
Some Iraqi lawmakers refused to attend Thursday’s session to prevent a quorum.
Their deadlock may be reflective of the increasingly sectarian divide in both Iraq’s military and government.
While acknowledging the need for the Shia-dominated government to be more inclusive, Zebari called for lawmakers to rise above divisions and unite in the face of the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“Really, this is not the time to be involved in these internal political differences,” he said. “We are facing a larger threat.”
Red Cross: Don’t target civilians
While the violence continued, the International Committee of the Red Cross pleaded Thursday that civilians be spared.
“Civilians must not be attacked and they must be allowed to move freely to safer areas,” said Patrick Youssef, head of the ICRC delegation in Iraq. “Civilian structures such as homes, hospitals, schools or places of worship must not be targeted.”
ICRC personnel in Kirkuk, Dohuk, Irbil and Baghdad are paying close attention the situation, Youssef said, noting that Mosul is enduring power shortages. Hospitals there have the capacity to treat large numbers of people, he said, but some have stopped functioning.
ICRC staff members have distributed one-month food parcels and other relief items to more than 10,000 people displaced in Zummar and in Al-Qosh, north of Mosul. More food and other supplies will be delivered soon, Youssef said. The ICRC is appealing to all the parties involved in the unrest, he added.
The International Rescue Committee said it was “deeply concerned” about the displacement of Iraqis fleeing the violence and the Syrian refugees in Iraq who fled fighting in their country.
“The potential toxic brew of two neighboring countries in such a volatile region imploding has grave humanitarian consequences,” IRC said Thursday in a statement.
Open to U.S. strikes
The devastating militant advance, which had been building for some time, is proving an object lesson of much that is wrong in Iraq and the region – growing sectarian tensions at home and a festering civil war over the border in Syria.
It also shows that extremists can strike swiftly and effectively against Iraq’s American-trained security forces.
It came as little surprise when Iraq indicated a willingness Wednesday for the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes against the radical Islamist militants.
Washington has provided $15 billion in training, weapons and equipment to the Iraqi government.
Several U.S. officials said Washington views the situation as “extremely urgent” and is looking to see what more support the United States can provide to the Iraqi government, in addition to weapons and vehicles it has already provided.
Part of this will be giving Iraqi officals intelligence they can use to go going after ISIS.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the White House was looking at a range of options, but “the current focus of our discussions with the government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat.”
When the militants attacked the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit, government forces took off, leaving their weapons behind.
There clearly was a breakdown in Iraqi security, a U.S. official said. But Washington says it was caused by a combination of factors, including that Iraqi forces were already stretched thin by limited success against ISIS in another province, the insurgency-racked Anbar.
U.S. contractors evacuated
For now, militants remain in control of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million that collapsed swiftly Tuesday. The heavily armed radicals overran police stations, freed more than 1,000 prisoners from the city jail and took over the international airport.
Iraqi forces ran in the face of the onslaught, leaving behind uniforms, weapons and armored vehicles.
Since then, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting there, the International Organization for Migration said Wednesday. The U.N. refugee agency said many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and were in urgent need of shelter, water, food and medical care.
Among those leaving for safety are U.S. contractors at a military base in Balad, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said American citizens working on contracts supporting U.S. military sales to Iraq “are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns.”
Their evacuation began early Thursday morning and is ongoing, a U.S. official said. Most of the contractors, some of whom are not American, are being flown out of Iraq – not to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, as an official said earlier. This effort, which does not involve military aircraft, is being conducted by their companies with the U.S. government’s help, a senior State Department official said.
The companies involved include Lockheed Martin, spokesman Mike Rein said.
The security concerns were exacerbated by the seizure of 48 people, including diplomats, in a Wednesday raid on the Turkish Consulate.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday that the health of those captured is “fine.” He said the government was working to secure their release.
The government will “continue working around the clock and will continue working until they all return home safely,” he vowed.
Militants also seized parts of Baiji, a small town on the main highway to Mosul where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is located.
For the government to reinforce its troops in Mosul, it needs to drive them through Baiji. If the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, controls the town, the government’s task will be much harder.
A silver lining?
One silver lining, the officials said, is that Iraqi officials now seem to have a coordinated approach with the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. It appears Iraqi forces will team up with Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, to fight militants with ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda.
Peshmerga forces took up positions in southwest Kirkuk after militants took over several villages and districts north and west of the city and the Iraqi army withdrew, police officials there told CNN.
Helgort Hakmet, head of the media office of the Kurdistan Peshmerga Ministry, told CNN on Thursday that Kurdish troops now control the entire province of Kirkuk.
Local police forces are still in charge of the security inside the city of Kirkuk, he said, about 165 miles (266 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
The Iraqi government hopes the militants can also be beaten back elsewhere.
“This is not the end, we are very confident that we will be able to correct the path and to overcome mistakes,” the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on its website.
Earlier this year, ISIS took control of the city of Falluja and parts of Ramadi. Across the border in Syria, it controls towns such as Raqqa.
It is capable of fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on one hand, fellow radicals on another and the Iraqi government on top of that – an indication of the depth to which the group has established itself in the region, experts have said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning for Iraq. Terrorist activity and violence, it said, are at “levels unseen since 2007.”
CNN’s Faith Karimi, Salma Abdelaziz, Hamdi Alkhshali, Yousuf Basil, Greg Botelho, Barbara Starr, Elise Labott, Jim Acosta, Jason Hanna and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.