Airstrikes believed pushed aside in short term because of lack of clear militant targets amid diminished US spying capacity in the Middle East

The CIA and other spy agencies are scrambling to close intelligence gaps as they seek to support possible military or covert action against the militant group that has seized parts of Iraq and threatens Baghdad's Government.

The lack of clear intelligence appears to have shifted US President Barack Obama's immediate focus away from airstrikes in Iraq because officials said there are few obvious targets. However, officials said no final decisions had been made and suggested Obama ultimately could approve strikes if strong targets do become available.

As the US intensifies its intelligence collection efforts, officials are confronting a diminished spying capacity in the Middle East, where the 2011 departure of US troops from Iraq and the outbreak of civil war in Syria left large swaths of both countries largely off-limits to American operatives.

US intelligence analysts are working to track the movements of key figures inthe Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which seized Mosul, Tikrit and other cities in Iraq as the country's military melted away. They are sifting through data provided by Jordanian, Saudi, Turkish and other intelligence services, as well as their own human sources, satellites, drones and communications intercepts by the National Security Agency, US intelligence officials say.


Obama planned to brief top congressional leaders on his Administration's possible responses during a White House meeting today.

The Obama Administration has discussed the possibility of launching targeted airstrikes, either with drones or manned aircrafts, to try to blunt the momentum of the fast-moving Sunni insurgency. Other options under consideration include deploying a small contingent of US special operations forces to help train the Iraqi military and boosting intelligence available to the Iraqis.

More broadly, the Obama Administration is also pressing for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take steps to make his Shia-dominated Government more inclusive.

The CIA and other agencies are assembling detailed dossiers known as "targeting packages" that amount to profiles of insurgent commanders, including as much day-to-day information as can be gathered about their location, movements, associates and communications.

Last night the jihadists were surrounding Iraq's largest oil refinery, forcing its closure. Officials confirmed that a unit of the Iraqi army, the 17th Brigade of the Fourth Division, were defending the plant at Baiji, north of Tikrit, but were surrounded by the opposing forces, made up of a mixture of Islamist extremists and their local Sunni allies. Foreign staff were evacuated as the refinery, which processes 300,000 barrels of oil a day, was switched off.

Shia-led forces were yesterday accused of a sectarian massacre at an Iraqi prison in apparent retaliation for killings by Sunni jihadists sweeping through the country.

Relations and survivors of a battle between Isis and government forces defending the city of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, said scores of Sunni prisoners were killed after being told they could flee.

The cousin of two of the men said to have been shot in the back told the Daily Telegraph: "I am told their bodies have been burned. The prison is run by the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Unit - the special forces. Suddenly the prisoners were told they would be free to go and they opened the doors.

"The security guards wanted to show that the prisoners had fled. Once they were running out of the prison they shot them in their backs."

He said he had been told the information by a friend who was injured but managed to escape. An Iraqi Army spokesman said 52 prisoners had died, but said they had been killed by Isis shelling as they attacked the jail in an attempt to free inmates.

An Iraqi intelligence officer said he had been told the men had been shot because they were Sunni extremists. "They killed the Sunni extremist prisoners. When Shia officers and police heard that Isis was coming they executed them." Another report, which gave the number of dead as 44, said that the special forces arrived and told the police to leave. The police found the bodies when they returned. Officers who spoke to AP lent support to that version, adding that the special forces were accompanied by Shia militia men.

The sectarian nature of the fighting is a microcosm of the religious hatred across the region. Many Sunni countries have blamed the uprising on the Shia-led Government of Nouri al-Maliki, and alienation felt by many of the former ruling Sunni minority caused by discriminatory policies towards them during the eight years of his rule. The Iraqi Cabinet accuses Sunni Saudi Arabia of funding and supporting the insurgency. Telegraph Group Ltd, AP