Iraqi Kurds seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday, while surging Sunni Islamist rebels advanced toward Baghdad, as the central government’s army abandoned its posts in a rapid collapse that has lost it control of the north.
Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north, swept into Kirkuk after the army abandoned its posts there, a peshmerga spokesman said. “The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” said Jabbar Yawar. “No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”
Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk, a city with huge oil reserves just outside their autonomous region, which they regard as their historical capital. The swift move by their highly organized security forces demonstrates how this week’s sudden advance by fighters of the al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has redrawn Iraq’s map.
Since Tuesday, black-clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul and Tikrit, hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as other towns and cities north of Baghdad. They continued their lightning advance on Thursday, moving into towns just an hour’s drive from the capital.
The army of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has essentially fled in the face of the onslaught, abandoning buildings and weapons to the fighters who aim to create a strict Sunni Caliphate on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier.
INSURGENCY: MILITANTS ADVANCE TOWARD CAPITAL
Security and police sources said militants now controlled parts of the small town of Udhaim, 90 kilometres north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left their positions and withdrew toward the nearby town of Khalis.
“We are waiting for supporting troops and we are determined not to let them take control. We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to cut the main highway that links Baghdad to the north,” said a police officer in Udhaim.
“ ‘Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be there,’ that’s what their leader of the militants group kept repeating,” a tribal figure from the town of Alam, north of Tikrit, 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 neighborhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting in 2006-2007 under U.S. occupation.
The stunning advance of ISIL, effectively seizing northern Iraq’s main population centers in a matter of days, is the biggest threat to Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.
BAIJI: INSURGENTS SURROUND MAJOR OIL REFINERY
Insurgents surrounded Iraq’s largest refinery in the northern town of Baiji on Thursday, police and an engineer inside said.
Sunni militants first moved into Baiji late on Tuesday, closing in on the refinery, but later withdrew to the surrounding villages after reaching a deal with local tribal chiefs. A witness who lives in a house near the refinery said the militants arrived in more than 50 vehicles.
Earlier Thursday, Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said the oil field was under government control. Luaibi said Iraq was not importing any additional fuel and that stored supplies of gasoline and diesel were good. The country’s crude oil exports from its southern terminal at Basra were running at an average 2.6 to 2.7 million barrels per day as of Wednesday, he said.
BAGHDAD: BOYCOTT THWARTS VOTE ON STATE OF EMERGENCY
Iraq’s parliament failed to reach a quorum on Thursday for a vote on declaring a nationwide state of emergency as the Sunni insurgents advanced on Baghdad.
Most of those boycotting parliament were from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish factions, who oppose giving extraordinary powers to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
NORTHERN IRAQ: HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS FLEE
About 500,000 Iraqis have fled Mosul, home to two million people, and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in autonomous Kurdistan, a region that has prospered while patrolled by the powerful peshmerga, avoiding the violence that has plagued the rest of Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk instantly overturns the fragile balance of power that has held Iraq together as a state since Saddam’s fall.
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,” referring to the province of Nineveh of which the city is the capital.
Militants were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen after their seizure of some towns.
In Mosul, 80 Turkish citizens were being held hostage by ISIL, the foreign ministry in Ankara said, after its consulate there was overrun. Turkey threatened to retaliate if any of the group, which included special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, were harmed.
UNITED NATIONS: IRAQI ENVOY PRESSES SECURITY COUNCIL FOR MILITARY AID
Iraq’s ambassador to France called on the UN Security Council to approve extra military aid for Baghdad, including air and drone support, when it meets in New York later on Thursday.
“We need equipment, extra aviation and drones,” Fareed Yasseen said when asked on France Inter radio what Iraq wanted from the council. “It must support Iraq because what is happening is not just a threat for Iraq but the entire region.”
Yasseen said as far as he knew the Iraqi government had not yet asked the United States to launch air strikes on Islamist militants who appeared to be marching towards Baghdad.
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