BAQUBA, Iraq (Reuters) - Sunni Islamist militants gained more ground in Iraq overnight, moving into two towns in the eastern province of Diyala, while United States President Barack Obama considered military strikes to halt their advance towards the capital Baghdad.
After security forces abandoned their posts, security sources said the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla had fallen to the insurgents, along with several villages around the Himreen mountains, which have long been a hideout for militants.
Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) overran the northern city of Mosul earlier this week and have since pressed south towards Baghdad in an onslaught against the Shi'ite-led government.
The Kurds, who run their own autonomous region in the north, have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their territory, taking control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas outside the formal boundary of their enclave.
Kurdish peshmerga forces also deployed men to secure their political party offices in Jalawla before the insurgents arrived in the town. There were no confrontations between them.
The Iraqi army fired artillery at Saadiya and Jalawla from the nearby town of Muqdadiya, sending dozens of families fleeing towards Khaniqin near the Iranian border, security sources said.
On Thursday, Mr Obama threatened US military strikes against the Sunni Islamist militants who want to establish their own state in Iraq and Syria. "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," Mr Obama said at the White House when asked whether he was contemplating air strikes. Officials later stressed that ground troops would not be sent in.
Mr Obama was looking at "all options" to help Iraq's leaders, who took full control when the US 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.
Mr Obama also referred to long-standing US 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, shut out of power when US troops overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, nursing grievances and keen for revenge. "This should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this," Mr Obama said.