A picture taken from a video uploaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria shows militants near Tikrit. (AFP)
Baghdad, June 11: Sunni militants who overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces crumbled in disarray extended their reach in a lightning advance today, pressing south towards Baghdad.
They occupied facilities in the strategic oil refining town of Baiji and seized the city of Tikrit with little resistance, security officials and residents said.
By late today there were unconfirmed reports that the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 112km north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shia shrine that was bombed in 2006, during the height of the American-led occupation, touching off bitter sectarian mayhem between the Sunni minority and Shia majority.
The authorities in neighbouring Iran, which is predominantly Shia, cancelled all visas and flights for pilgrims to Baghdad and intensified border security, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Insurgents also raided the Turkish consulate in Mosul and seized the consul general and 47 other Turkish citizens, including special-forces soldiers and three children of diplomats, the Turkish Prime Minister’s office said. The development raised the possibility that Turkey, a Nato ally that borders both Syria and Iraq, would become directly entangled in the fast-moving crisis.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was holding an emergency meeting with top security officials today to discuss the crisis, and the Turkish foreign minister cut short a trip to New York and was returning to Ankara, government statements said.
Amid the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, Tikrit and other northern cities, questions began to be raised about the possibility of a conspiracy in the military to deliberately surrender. Witnesses reported some remarkable scenes in Tikrit, where soldiers handed over their weapons and uniforms peacefully to militants who ordinarily would have been expected to kill government soldiers on the spot.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shia, himself suggested the possibility of a disloyal military himself in his exhortations yesterday for citizens to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents.
Citizens in Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 177km south of Mosul, awoke today to find that government checkpoints had been abandoned and that insurgents, arriving in a column of 60 vehicles, were taking control of parts of the city without firing a shot, the security officials said.
Peter Bouckaert, the emergency services director for Human Rights Watch, said in a post on Twitter that the militants had seized the Baiji power station, which supplies electricity to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Salahuddin province.
In Tikrit, famous as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, residents said the militants attacked in the afternoon from three directions: east, west and north. Residents said there were brief exchanges of gunfire, and then police officers and soldiers shed their uniforms, put on civilian clothing and fled through residential areas to avoid the militants.