AFRICANGLOBE – Islamist militants overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit, just one day after fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, took control of Mosul. ISIS’s grip is expanding in the region.
Islamist militants swept out of northern Iraq Wednesday to seize their second city in two days, threatening Baghdad and pushing the country’s besieged government to signal it would allow U.S. airstrikes to beat back the advance.
An alarmed Iraqi government also asked the U.S. to accelerate delivery of pledged military support, particularly Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters and surveillance equipment, to help push back fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS. The U.S. said it has been expediting shipments of military hardware to the Iraqis all year.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country faces a “mortal threat” from the ISIS insurgents.
Officials declined to say whether the U.S. would consider conducting airstrikes with drones or manned aircraft. The Obama administration is considering a number of options, according to a senior U.S. official who added that no decisions have been made.
Bernadette Meehan, a White House National Security Council spokeswoman, said the current focus of discussions with Iraq “is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat posed by [ISIS].”
ISIS overran Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, on Wednesday after capturing Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, a day earlier. The takeover of the city of 250,000 about 85 miles north of Baghdad was confirmed by Ali Al Hamdani, a senior official in Salah Al Din province, where the city is located. The insurgents freed hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jails.
By Wednesday evening, there were reports of fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamists on the outskirts of Samarra, a city further south and less than 80 miles north of the capital.
The conquests over the past two days were by far the most significant by the Sunni group, which has also taken control of parts of neighboring Syria during the civil war there.
ISIS aims to set up a state in a continuous stretch of territory from Sunni-dominated Anbar province in Iraq eastward to Raqqa province in northeast Syria.
There were already signs that the advance was spilling over to fuel wider sectarian strife around the region encompassing Syria, Iran and Lebanon and Iraq. The struggle pits Sunnis, backed by regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, against Shiites backed by Iran.
In Syria, ISIS militants ringed the city of Deir el Zour on Wednesday, which is surrounded by a region with oil reserves long coveted by the militants.
U.S.-armed and trained Iraqi security forces put up almost no fight throughout the militants’ daylong rout on Wednesday, witnesses said. The ease with which the fighters beat back the military raised questions about whether Iraqi troops would be able to defend the capital if challenged.
Members of Shiite militias in Iraq, many of which are funded and trained by the neighboring Iranian government, said they were standing at the ready to defend Baghdad. One Shiite militiaman who asked not to be named said he knew of groups raiding homes throughout Baghdad, where ISIS militants were thought to be active.
“We’re not counting on government forces,” said the fighter, adding that Iraq’s military had pledged to provide them with weapons. Several militias had already left to the front lines in Samarra, home to an important Shiite shrine, he added.
Witnesses said soldiers abandoned their posts before the fighters were even within sight on Wednesday. In some instances, hundreds of well-armed government troops retreated in the face of attacks by only a few dozen militants. Many doffed their uniforms, put on civilian clothing and fled on foot.
The Iraqi security forces were trying to rebuild their ranks after hundreds of soldiers and police deserted their posts as the rebels advanced on Mosul. Those who returned to their barracks on Wednesday have been offered amnesty from prosecution, said security officials in the provinces of Kirkuk and Salah Al Din.
During the day’s advance, the Islamists took the oil refinery city of Bayji, though security officials there said the vital refinery in the city remained under the protection of some 250 government troops.
In Tikrit, dozens of gunmen were able to invade the city, attack the main provincial headquarters and occupy it in short order, according to witnesses. They then moved on to the local provincial police headquarters where they killed two brigadier generals and forced police to flee, according to witnesses.
The militants then quickly occupied a government compound that houses the office of the provincial council and homes of senior local officials, security officials and senior judges.
Anti-terrorism forces arrived in Tikrit shortly after ISIS overran the city. Witnesses said they were backed by military planes that launched aerial attacks on the militants.
Iraqi soldiers head toward Baghdad from a base in the north after Islamist fighters made gains.
Local security forces in Tikrit said the militants’ ranks were swollen by as many as 70 convicts who joined the fight after ISIS raided prisons and freed inmates in Mosul and Tikrit.
Moving south along the Tigris river, the militants pressed their campaign, and Iraqi security forces scattered.
Regional officials said they were worried that significant stocks of weapons ISIS fighters stole from military bases in northern Iraq could be transported across borders and used in conflicts and terror attacks elsewhere.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials said on Tuesday that the attacks show the degree to which Islamist militants have established a revolving door between Iraq and Syria, with fighters flowing easily between the two countries and fueling conflict in both.
Images on social media sites showed ISIS militants posing in front of pilfered weapons, Humvees and trucks—much of it apparently sold to the Iraqi military by the U.S.
There is growing international alarm over the rapid advances of the militant group. Adding to that alarm, militants stormed the Turkish consulate in the northern city of Mosul and took 49 staff hostage including the consul-general, the Turkish foreign ministry said.
The International Organization of Migration estimated that at least 500,000 people have fled Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh out of fear of escalating violence. Most went to nearby Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.
ISIS is capitalizing on a wave of Sunni discontent with the Shiite-dominated governments that have ruled Iraq since Saddam’s ouster in 2003. Tikrit and Mosul are the provincial capitals of two of the three Iraqi provinces dominated by the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.
While authorities in Baghdad appeared surprised by the militant group’s advance, the ground was laid several years ago when Sunni civilians first began to organize in opposition to what they considered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies.
Mr. Maliki, a Shiite who is vying for a third term after his coalition won a plurality in April 30 elections, alienated Sunnis with laws that isolated members of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime—known as de-Baathification—and gave law enforcement broad powers to arrest suspected terrorists for indefinite periods without charge. Many Sunnis said the terrorism statute was aimed unfairly at them.
In Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad dominated by a minority that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, expressed solidarity with Mr. Maliki’s government and pledged to support Iraq’s military.
On their first full day of control in Mosul, insurgents took up posts guarding banks and shops on Wednesday and were policing lines at fuel stations, witnesses said. They also circulated through city neighborhoods to help distribute fuel for generators, a main source of electricity.
The rebels were employing the same strategy they have used in Fallujah, a Sunni-majority city 36 miles west of Baghdad, which they have ruled since early January. Instead of enforcing strict Islamic law by policing the wearing of veils by women and chastising cigarette smokers, they sought to restore an air of normalcy.
By: Ali A. Nabim