Islamist insurgents have taken control of the central city of Tikrit, police said on Wednesday, a day after seizing Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. Half a million Mosul residents have reportedly fled the recent violence.
The Islamists freed some 300 prisoners after taking control of the city, which lies 150 kilometres (93 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad.
"All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants," a police colonel said of the Salaheddin provincial capital, which lies roughly halfway between Baghdad and Mosul.
Iraqi security forces were reportedly battling militants at a northern entrance to the city of Samarra, police and witnesses said, as the jihadists push south toward Baghdad in a lightning offensive.
Mosul fell under the control of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL – on Tuesday.
Hundreds of militants seized the government headquarters in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, and the Nineveh Operations Command as well as the airport, an army brigadier general told AFP on Tuesday. They also freed hundreds of prisoners after launching assaults on three jails.
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, told journalists in Baghdad Tuesday that the entire province of Nineveh was now under militant control.
Soldiers and police stripped off their uniforms so as not to be recognised and fled Mosul in the face of the Islamist onslaught.
Half a million residents have also reportedly fled the city in the wake of the Islamists' recent gains.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded to the advance by asking parliament to declare a state of emergency and announcing that the government would arm citizens to help fight the militants.
Maliki said in televised remarks that the cabinet had "created a special crisis cell to follow up on the process of volunteering and equipping and arming" the citizenry.
Iraq 'open to airstrikes'
A Western official told AFP on Wednesday that Iraqi officials had privately asked President Barack Obama’s administration to consider potential air strikes targeting militants.
The Obama administration is weighing several possibilities to offer military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, the official said on condition of anonymity.
But Baghdad has not yet formulated an official request, a US defence official said.
Tikrit is the third Iraqi city to fall under militant control this year. Before Mosul, Islamist fighters took control of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in January. ISIS also controls parts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
The hardline Salafist group began as an al Qaeda offshoot and is also active across the border in neighbouring Syria. It now controls an area that stretches from the eastern Syrian city of Raqaa through the western Iraqi desert and well into northern Iraq.
Earlier in the day the Islamists executed 15 security personnel in Kirkuk province and tried to take control of the oil pipeline hub of Baiji before withdrawing when troop reinforcements arrived, officials said.
Turks held hostage in consulate raid
Militants on Wednesday also stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul, taking 48 people, including the head of the diplomatic mission, as hostages, a Turkish government official said.
"Forty-eight Turks – including the consul, staff members, special operations teams and three children – were abducted," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
ISIS emerged from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq following the 2011 US troop pullout. In April 2013 the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued a statement announcing the merger of his group with Syria's al Nusra Front under the newly created ISIS banner.
The statement prompted a number of al Nusra fighters – including foreign jihadists – to leave and join ISIS. But the leader of al Nusra in Syria, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, has denied the merger took place.
Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was reportedly against the groups joining forces. In November he ordered the dissolution of ISIS and said al Nusra would operate in Syria under al Qaeda command.
But Baghdadi disregarded Zawahiri’s order and reaffirmed his commitment to merging the groups, with ISIS continuing operations in both Syria and Iraq.
Known for its brutality, ISIS has at times conducted operations alongside al Nusra but has tense relations with most Syrian rebel groups, including fellow Islamists.
It is unknown just how many fighters ISIS has at its command, but estimates range in the thousands. Its funding is believed to come out of private donations from the Gulf States as well as the taxes and duties levied on goods and businesses in the territories it controls. In the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour the group has seized oil refineries, thus expanding its financial resources.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-06-11