The insurgency threatening to dismember Iraq appeared to slow on Saturday after government forces spoke of wresting back the initiative through a series of counterattacks.
Footage released by Iraq’s defence ministry showed helicopter gunships targeting Sunni militant sites in the north of the country.
But the lighting advance and gains of the insurgents have put the very future of Iraq as a unitary state in question and raised once again the spectre of sectarian conflict.
In the southern city of Basra, hundreds of men have volunteered to join the battle against the militants, heeding a call to arms by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric.
The scale of the crisis has alarmed outside powers with Iran contemplating cooperation with the US to fight ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces which control larges swathes of the east and north of the country, including Iraq’s second largest city Mosul.
Washington also announced on Saturday that it was moving an aircraft carrier to the Gulf to provide President Obama with military options should the situation deteriorate further.