Most Jews have no Jewish message to the world


Ask just about any Christian — whether Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or Eastern Orthodox — “What is your purpose as a Christian? What is your message to the world as a Christian?” 

You will receive some variation on this response: “To spread the good news of Jesus Christ and bring as many people as possible to salvation through faith in him.”

Ask any Muslim — Sunni or Shiite — the same questions, just changing “Christian” to “Muslim.” And you will receive this response: “To bring the world to the one true religion, Islam.”

Ask a Mormon the same questions, substituting “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saint” for “Christian” and you will be told: “To convert as many people as possible to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” That’s why tens of thousands of young Mormons are sent around the world to make Mormon converts.

Then ask any Jew the same questions. 

Of course, unlike these other religious groups, Jews do not seek to convert the world to their religion (though we should certainly make the case for Judaism and announce that we welcome converts). 

Here are likely responses:

Response 1: “What do you mean?”

This would be the response of many Jews from the secular to Orthodox. The reason is that the idea of bringing a Jewish message to the world is just not part of their vocabulary.

Response 2: “Our first task is to talk to fellow Jews. So many Jews are alienated from Judaism and the Jewish people, we have to concentrate all our messaging on them.”

Response 3: the Orthodox response: “Our task is to keep the mitzvot that God has commanded us to observe. Then we will be a light unto the nations.”

This is the general Orthodox response. There are, of course, individual Orthodox Jews who believe Jews are obligated to reach out to the non-Jewish world with a Jewish message. But they are rare. The only institutional Orthodox exception is Chabad, which preaches the “Seven Noahide Laws” to non-Jews. 

Response 4: the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular response: “Our task is tikkun olam, to repair the world by working for social justice.”

Regarding the Jewish responses, the first point worth noting is that, unlike Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Muslims, there is nothing approaching a unified Jewish response to questions about the task of a Jew or the nature of the Jewish message to the world.

The second, and even more important point, is that none of the Jewish responses actually answers the questions. The first two obviously don’t. 

The third response, the Orthodox, acknowledges that Jews have a purpose, but no obligation to talk to the world. 

But if that is the case, for what purpose did God choose the Jews? Chosen to do what? 

Again, the Orthodox answer is “to keep the commandments.” That suffices, we are reassured, because when Jews do that, Jews will be a light unto the nations.

But how can you be a light if almost no one can see you? The most observant Jews are also the most cloistered Jews. How many non-Jews see the Jews of Orthodox enclaves such as Monsey or New Square in New York, Bnei Brak in Israel, or anywhere else the most observant Jews live? The answer is close to zero. Moreover, I am not certain that when non-Jews see Charedi or ultra-Orthodox Jews, they leave with a message.

So, with few exceptions, Orthodoxy has opted out of providing a Jewish message to the world.

Finally, we come to Response 4, the tikkun olam response given by most Conservative, Reform and Jewishly-identifying secular Jews.

Now, there is no question that Judaism wishes the Jew to help repair the world. But what religion doesn’t want to repair the world? Do committed Christians not want to repair the world? Just look at all the charities and hospitals created by Protestants and Catholics. For that matter, what decent secular ideology doesn’t want to repair the world? Do the great majority of liberals and conservatives not want to repair the world?

Obviously, then, since Jews from the left to the right want to repair the world, when Jews speak of the Jewish message as tikkun olam, they must be referring to something more specific than simply wanting to repair the world.

And they are. They are referring specifically to progressive politics. Tikkun olam for these Jews means extending taxing the rich, increasing the size of the government, creating new and enlarging existing welfare programs, fighting carbon emissions, supporting same-sex marriage, greatly increasing the minimum wage, providing free college tuition, criticizing Israel and supporting every other left-wing policy.

But if the Jews’ message to the world is identical to the left’s message to the word, there is no Jewish message to the world. Nor, for that matter, would there be any compelling reason to be Jewish. 

All one would have to do to in order to fulfill what Judaism stands for is become active in left-wing causes. Which is precisely what most young Jews have concluded, and have therefore become leftists without Judaism.

In Part Two, I will suggest what ought to be the Jews’ messages to the world.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Saudi Arabia recruits Sunni allies in row with Iran


Saudi Arabia rallied Sunni allies to its side in a growing diplomatic row withIran on Monday, deepening a sectarian split across the Middle East following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Bahrain and Sudan cut all ties with Iran, following Riyadh's example the previous day. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters Riyadh would also halt air traffic and commercial relations between the rival powers.

He blamed Iran's “aggressive policies” for the diplomatic action, alluding to years of tension that spilled over on Saturday night when Iranian protesters stormed the kingdom's embassy in Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), home to hundreds of thousands of Iranians, partially downgraded its relations but the other Gulf Arab countries – Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – stayed above the fray.

Shi'ite Iran accused Saudi Arabia of using the attack on the embassy as an “excuse” to sever ties and further increase sectarian tensions, as protesters in Iran and Iraq marched for a third day to denounce Saudi Arabia's execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

The UAE said Iran needed to stay out of Arab affairs and not act like a protector of Arab Shi'ites. “The Arab world isn't a venue for its blatant interference … Iran does not have guardianship or jurisdiction over a large number of Arabs for some sectarian reason,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.

A man was shot dead in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province late on Sunday, and two Sunni mosques in Iraq's Shi'ite-majority Hilla province were bombed in the fallout from the dispute between the Middle East's top Sunni and Shi'ite powers.

Oil prices spiked during European trading as the two big petroleum exporters traded insults and after violence hit other crude producers such as Iraq. But prices then eased back on evidence of economic weakness in Asia.

Stock markets across the Gulf dropped sharply, led by Qatar which fell more than 2.5 percent, with geopolitical jitters outweighing any benefit from stronger oil.

Crude importer China declared itself “highly concerned” with the developments, in a rare foray into Middle East diplomacy. The United States and Germany called for restraint, while Russia offered to mediate an end to the dispute.

SYRIA, YEMEN

The row threatened to derail efforts to end Syria's five-year-old civil war, where Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers support rebel groups against Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad.

In neighboring Lebanon, newspapers said the spat had clouded the hopes of filling the vacant presidency that had been raised last month after Iran and Saudi Arabia both voiced support for a power-sharing deal.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Saudi foreign minister on Monday that Riyadh's decision to break off diplomatic ties with Iran was extremely troubling. A spokesman said Ban wanted to help ensure both countries continued their commitment to ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

The U.N. chief urged Saudi Arabia to renew a ceasefire it ended this weekend with the Iran-allied Shi'ite Houthi group in Yemen that it has been bombing for nine months.

But analysts said fears of a sectarian rupture across the Middle East were premature, and the break in Saudi-Iran relations could be more a symptom of existing strains than evidence of new ones.

“The fact that the UAE was unwilling to cut off ties with Iran completely, despite the closeness of its relations with Saudi Arabia, shows the difficulty that the Saudis will have in trying to isolateIran,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The downgrading of ties is not fundamentally a question of responding to executions and the storming of an embassy… (but rather) a function of a much deeper conflict between the two states,” he added.

Trade between Saudi Arabia and Iran is small compared with the size of their economies, but some business is routed through the United Arab Emirates; comprehensive figures are not available. Investment ties are also minimal, though Saudi food conglomerate Savola has major manufacturing operations in Iran. 

“DIVINE REVENGE”

After a furious response in Shi'ite communities worldwide to the Sunni kingdom's execution of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Iran was creating “terrorist cells” among the kingdom's Shi'ite minority.

Saudi Arabia executed Nimr and three other Shi'ites on terrorism charges on Saturday, alongside dozens of Sunni jihadists. Shi'ite Iran hailed him as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family of “divine revenge”.

Shi'ite groups united in condemnation of Saudi Arabia while Sunni powers rallied behind the kingdom, hardening a sectarian split that has torn apart communities across the Middle East and nourished the jihadist ideology of Islamic State.

Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based seat of Sunni Muslim learning, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia, condemned the attacks on Riyadh's missions and stressed Tehran's obligation to respect the internal affairs of the kingdom.

Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island kingdom with a restive Shi'ite majority, accused Iran of “blatant and dangerous interference” in the affairs of the Gulf Arab countries, in a statement announcing the severing of diplomatic ties.

Western powers, many of which supply billions of dollars worth of weaponry to Gulf Arab powers, tried to tamp down the tensions with Iran but also deplored the executions, as human rights groups strongly criticized Saudi Arabia's judicial process and protesters gathered outside Saudi embassies.

Islamic State urges followers to escalate attacks in Ramadan


Islamic State urged its followers on Tuesday to escalate attacks against Christians, Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims fighting with a U.S.-led coalition against the ultra-radical group.

Jihadists should turn the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week, into a time of “calamity for the infidels … Shi'ites and apostate Muslims”, Isalmic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in an audio message. He urged more attacks in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

“Muslims everywhere, we congratulate you over the arrival of the holy month,” he said. “Be keen to conquer in this holy month and to become exposed to martyrdom.”

Adnani also called on Sunnis in Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to rise against “tyrannical leaders” and warned them against advancing Shi'ites, pointing to the treatment of Sunnis under a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and in Syria under the Alawites, the Shi'ite offshoot to which President Bashar al Assad belongs.

He said his group was undeterred by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate.

“We will continue, God willing, in our path and will not care even if many nations gang up against us or how many swords we are struck by,” he said.

Adnani also warned U.S. President Barack Obama that Islamic State would retaliate for the attacks against it.

“Obama and your defeated army, we promise you in the future setback after setback and surprise after surprise,” he said.

Sunni tribes in Iraq were joining the militants after the Iraqi government and the United States had failed to bring them into Iraq's political process, Adnani said.

“The Sunni people are now behind the jihadists … the enemies have been petrified by the daily pledges of allegiance by the chiefs of tribes to the Mujahideen,” he said.

In response to the pleading of Iraqi tribal elders, Adnani said, Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi had given Sunnis working with the U.S.-led coalition and those who were still in the Iraqi army one last chance to repent.

In recent weeks, several major Iraqi tribes in the restive Anbar province announced their allegiance to the militants in recorded videos.

Adnani devoted the bulk of his 29-minute speech to an appeal to Iraqi Sunnis. He said their enemies were Western infidels and Shiites, who wanted to expel them from Iraq and turn it into a Shi'ite state. Iraqi Sunnis were being evicted en masse from areas taken over by Shi'ite militias supported by the Iraqi government, he said.

“Needless to say, you all know the kidnappings, evictions, killings of Sunnis that happen every day in Baghdad,” he said. “Thousands and thousands” were already jailed in prisons in the predominantly Shi'ite provinces of southern Iraq, he said.

Adnani also called on those insurgents fighting the militant group in north and northwestern Syria to stop battling them or face the consequences.

Israel raises alarm over Islamist militants on its frontiers


Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al-Qaida, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al-Qaida.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters (yards) of Nusra fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km (225-mile) border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

RISKY CORNER

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

“UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years,” said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

“Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces,” he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

“We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy,” said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Obama weighs action in Iraq but rules out combat troops


President Barack Obama said on Friday he needs several days to determine how the United States will help Iraq deal with a militant insurgency, but he ruled out sending U.S. troops back into combat and said any intervention would be contingent on Iraqi leaders becoming more involved.

Obama did not describe the “range of options” he is considering to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a group he described as “vicious” and a “terrorist organization” that could eventually pose a threat to Americans.

He said Iraqi leaders needed to set aside sectarian differences to deal with the threat, and said the United States would engage in “intensive diplomacy” in the region to try to prevent the situation from worsening.

“The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together,” Obama told reporters at the White House. He said he was concerned that ISIL could try to overrun Shi'ite sacred sites, creating sectarian conflicts “that could be very hard to stamp out.” The rebels are Sunni Muslims and the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is dominated by Shi'ites.

“This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem. And what we're going to have to do is combine selective actions by our military to make sure that we're going after terrorists who could harm our personnel overseas or eventually hit the homeland,” Obama said.

Obama said he wanted to review intelligence on the situation in Iraq so that any U.S. actions are “targeted, they are precise, and they are going to have an effect.”

He also said he would consult with the U.S. Congress, where Republicans have been critical of Obama for failing to negotiate a deal with Iraq under which the United States would have left a small force there after pulling out troops at the end of 2011.

Obama's fellow Democrats are reluctant to see military intervention after the lengthy war, which began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein.

“Look, the United States has poured a lot of money into these Iraqi security forces,” Obama told reporters before leaving on a previously scheduled trip to North Dakota. He was scheduled to spend the weekend in California.

Obama was expected to talk to foreign leaders about the situation over the weekend, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One.

Earnest said the Obama administration had not yet discussed potential interventions with Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east and a backer of Maliki.

Obama said the insurgency so far had not caused major disruptions to oil supplies from Iraq, but that if insurgents took control of refineries, other oil producers in the Middle East would need to help “pick up the slack.”

“That will be part of the consultations that will be taking place during the course of this week,” Obama said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey and Eric Beech; Editing by David Storey and Grant McCool

Obama warns of U.S. action as jihadists push on Baghdad, Iraq


President Barack Obama threatened U.S. military strikes in Iraq on Thursday against Sunni Islamist militants who have surged out of the north to menace Baghdad and want to establish their own state in Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi Kurdish forces took advantage of the chaos to take control of the oil hub of Kirkuk as the troops of the Shi'ite-led government abandoned posts, alarming Baghdad's allies both in the West and in neighbouring Shi'ite regional power Iran.

“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.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Maliki by telephone on Thursday. The White House signalled on Wednesday that it was looking to strengthen Iraqi forces rather than meet what one U.S. official said were past Iraqi requests for air strikes.

With voters wary of renewing the costly military entanglements of the past decade, Obama last year stepped back from launching air strikes in Syria, where Sunni militants from the same group – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – are also active. Fears of violence spreading may increase pressure for international action, however. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said international powers “must deal with the situation”.

In Mosul ISIL staged a parade of American Humvee patrol cars seized from a collapsing Iraqi army in the two days since its fighters drove out of the desert and overran the northern metropolis.

At Baiji, near Kirkuk, insurgents surrounded Iraq's largest refinery, underscoring the potential threat to the oil industry, and residents near the Syrian border saw them bulldozing tracks through frontier sand berms – giving physical form to the dream of reviving a Muslim caliphate straddling both modern states.

AIR POWER

At Mosul, which had a population close to 2 million before recent 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.

It was unclear who the pilots were, but Sunnis who served in the forces of Saddam have rallied to the insurgency.

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.

Further south, the fighters extended their lightning advance to towns only about an hour's drive from the capital, where Shi'ite militia are mobilising for a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006-2007.

Trucks carrying Shi'ite volunteers in uniform rumbled towards the front lines to defend Baghdad.

The forces of Iraq's autonomous ethnic Kurdish north, known as the peshmerga, took over bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army, a spokesman said: “The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” said peshmerga spokesman Jabbar Yawar.

“No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”

Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historic capital, and peshmerga units were already present in an uneasy balance with government forces.

The swift move by their highly organised security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by ISIL has redrawn Iraq's map – and potentially that of the entire Middle East, where national borders were set nearly a century ago as France and Britain carved up the Ottoman empire.

Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters who do not recognise the region's modern frontiers have seized Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam's home town, and other towns and cities north of Baghdad.

The army has evaporated in the face of the onslaught, abandoning bases and U.S.-provided weapons. Online videos showed purportedly a column of hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops without uniforms being marched under guard near Tikrit.

Security and police sources said Sunni militants now controlled parts of the town of Udhaim, 90 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions and withdrew towards the nearby town of Khalis.

“We are waiting for reinforcements, and we are determined not to let them take control,” said a police officer in Udhaim. “We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to cut the main highway that links Baghdad to the north.”

ISIL and its allies took control of Falluja at the start of the year. It lies just 50 km west of Maliki's office.

OIL PRICE SURGE

The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet later on Thursday. Iraq's ambassador to France said it would call for weapons and air support: “We need equipment, extra aviation and drones,” Fareed Yasseen said on French radio.

The Council “must support Iraq, because what is happening is not just a threat for Iraq but the entire region”.

The global oil benchmark jumped over 2 percent on Thursday, as concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies from the OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are in the largely Shi'ite areas in the south and were “very, very safe”, oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.

ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the main oil refinery that meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel. Luaibi said the refinery itself was still in government hands but late on Thursday police and an engineer inside the plant said insurgents were surrounding it.

Militants have set up military councils to run the towns they captured, residents said. “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town,” said a tribal figure from the town of Alam.

“'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be there,' – that’s what their leader kept repeating,” he said.

Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the Sunni militants from reaching the capital, which is itself divided into Sunni and Shi'ite neighbourhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006-2007 under U.S. occupation.

By midday on Thursday insurgents had not entered Samarra, the next big city in their path on the Tigris north of Baghdad.

“The situation inside Samarra is very calm today, and I can’t see any presence of the militants. Life is normal here,” said Wisam Jamal, a government employee in the mainly Sunni city, which also houses a major Shi'ite pilgrimage site.

LOW MORALE

The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States at a cost of nearly $25 billion, is hobbled by low morale and corruption. Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in Sunni areas that it pursues the hostile interests of Shi'ites.

The Obama administration had tried to keep a contingent of troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to prevent a return of insurgents, but failed to reach a deal with Maliki. A State Department official said on Thursday that Washington was disappointed after “a clear structural breakdown” of the Iraqi forces.

Iraq's parliament was meant to hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian political dysfunction that has paralysed decision-making in Baghdad.

The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk overturns a fragile balance of power that has held Iraq together since Saddam's fall.

Iraq's Kurds have done well since 2003, running their own affairs while being given a fixed percentage of the country's overall oil revenue. But with full control of Kirkuk – and the vast oil deposits beneath it – they could earn more on their own, eliminating the incentive to remain part of a failing Iraq.

Maliki's army already lost control of much of the Euphrates valley west of the capital to ISIL last year, and with the evaporation of the army in the Tigris valley to the north, the government could be left with just Baghdad and areas south.

Iran, which funds and arms Shi'ite groups in Iraq, could be brought deeper into the conflict, as could Turkey to the north, also home to a big Kurdish minority. In Mosul, 80 Turks were held hostage by ISIL after Ankara's consulate there was overrun.

Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a “conspiracy” and said the security forces who had abandoned their posts would be punished. In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan “to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates” – meaning Shi'ites.

Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen after their seizure of some towns.

ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda's international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in Syria.

In Syria, it controls swathes of territory, funding its advances through taxing local businesses, seizing aid and selling oil. In Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings against Shi'ite civilians, killing hundreds a month.

Additional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit, Ziad al-Sinjary in Mosul, Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Raheem Salman and Isra al-Rubei'i in Baghdad and Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Will Waterman

Obama does not rule out air strikes against Iraq insurgents


The United States is not ruling out air strikes to assist the Iraqi government fight a growing radical Islamist insurgency, President Barack Obama said on Thursday, raising the possibility of the first American military intervention in Iraq since the end of the U.S.-led war.

Obama was asked whether Washington would consider drone strikes to combat violence that threatens to break up the country. “Iraq is going to need more help. It's going to need more help from us, and it's going to need more help from the international community,” he said.

“My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them. I don't rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House as he met Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Obama said the Iraqis needed to do more to bridge sectarian divides in the country, but he noted military action was needed right away.

“It's fair to say that in our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily, and our national security team is looking at all the options,” Obama said.

“But this should be also a wakeup call for the Iraqi government. There has to be a political component to this.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said later that the United States was not contemplating sending ground troops to Iraq.

Obama won the White House in 2008 largely on the back of his opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. American troops returned home under his tenure, and are preparing to leave Afghanistan, where the U.S. combat mission is slated to come to a close at the end of this year.

Critics, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, said Obama had contributed to the unrest in Iraq by failing to negotiate a deal under which the United States would have left a small force there after pulling out troops at the end of 2011.

Boehner urged Obama to deliver military and other aid promised to the government in Baghdad. “What's the president doing? Taking a nap?” he said.

The Obama administration has highlighted recent U.S. support including delivery of 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, machine guns and other weapons for the Iraqi Security Forces.

It also notified Congress recently of an additional sale of $1 billion in arms that is now in a 30-day review period, according to the White House.

ACCELERATING SUPPORT

Iraqi Kurdish forces took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday, after government troops abandoned their posts in the face of a march by Sunni rebels toward Baghdad following their capture of the country's second city, Mosul.

The insurgents, from an al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which operates in Iraq and neighboring Syria, overran the city of Tikrit on Wednesday.

It also closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country at Baiji, making further gains in a rapid military advance against the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.

The White House said the refinery was still controlled by the government, but the broader unrest has led to increasingly urgent discussions in Washington about what to do.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was “prepared to make key decisions in short order” and Vice President Joe Biden told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a phone call that Washington was ready to intensify and accelerate security support.

The potential for U.S. military intervention in the country alarmed some of Obama's fellow Democrats.

“I don't think there's any appetite in our country for us to become engaged in military activity in Iraq,” said Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader. “War begets war. It's just not a good idea.”

But some other lawmakers said they would support U.S. air strikes to help the Iraqi military.

“There is no scenario where we can stop the bleeding in Iraq without American air power. The Iraqi army is on the verge of collapse,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters after leaving a classified briefing for the Senate Armed Services Committee by U.S. Department of Defense officials.

“It's in our national security interest to intervene.”

Obama repeated his mantra that the United States would act militarily if it was within its national security interests.

The discussion had not advanced to the point where the administration had asked Congress for additional or emergency funds for operations in Iraq, congressional aides said.

Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell, David Storey, and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Israel says it bombed Lebanon in retaliation for rocket attack


Israel's air force bombed a militant target in Lebanon on Friday in retaliation for a cross-border rocket salvo on Thursday, a spokesman said.

An Israeli military source said the “terror site” bombed was near Na'ameh, between Beirut and Sidon, but did not immediately provide further details.

Four rockets fired on Thursday caused damage but no casualties in northern Israel. They were claimed by an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim group rather than Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that holds sway in south Lebanon.

“Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a statement announcing Friday's air strike.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. Israel briefly invaded Lebanon during an inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. The Israelis now are reluctant to open a new Lebanese front, however, given spiraling regional instability.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bill Trott