Erbil, Iraq: As thousands of civilians continued to pour out of the contested city of Mosul, fleeing both the ferocious advance of Islamist militants and the feared government retaliation, Iraq launched a series of air strikes on positions in Mosul in an attempt to regain ground it had so quickly lost this week.
Further to the north, Kurdish troops announced they had seized control of the city of Kirkuk to defend it against further gains from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), after Iraqi soldiers reportedly deserted their posts and fled.
“We tightened our control of Kirkuk city and are awaiting orders to move toward the areas that are controlled by [militants],” Brigadier General Shirko Rauf of the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces told Agence France-Presse.
Edging closer towards an all-out sectarian war, the lightning fast three-day surge by the Sunni extremists also saw the town of Tikrit fall to ISIL on Wednesday and then, reportedly, back into the control of the Iraqi army on Thursday. ISIL has also taken over the town of Sharqat, in Salah al-Din province, and parts of Baiji, including an army barracks, a police station, and a power station that serves Baghdad, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk.
The speed with which Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city and home to 1.8 million people – fell to ISIL and other insurgent groups has shocked both Iraq and its Western backers, particularly the United States, which only withdrew the last of its soldiers in late 2011 after an invasion and occupation that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis and more than 4500 US soldiers.
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official ISIL spokesman, posted a statement on YouTube urging ISIL fighters to march on the capital and encouraging followers to also take control of the city of Karbala, considered one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, who make up an estimated 60 per cent of Iraq’s population.
It is all part of ISIL’s plan to establish a Sunni Islamist state that runs from Iraq across the border into Syria and beyond.
In the capital Baghdad, an attempt by the Prime Minister to recall parliament to pass extraordinary emergency powers failed when not enough MPs turned up to reach a quorum, underlining the depths of the fault lines running throughout Iraqi society from the parliament and the army to the street.
Government security forces took off their uniforms, laid down their weapons and fled, with hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents not far behind them.
For the Iraqi civilians caught up in yet another frightening sectarian conflict, it is as much a visceral hatred of the tactics of Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as it is the fear of life under Sunni extremists that is driving the exodus from Mosul.
Long lines of cars and pick-up trucks full of people and piled high with their belongings stretched across the border between Mosul and the autonomous Kurdish region of Erbil, as aid workers rushed to expand a nearby refugee camp.
Driving a sedan carrying 10 of his family members, Ziad, who did not want his last name used, said he felt it was no longer safe to stay in their home in the town of Bashikal, about 15 kilometres from Mosul.
“We are Shiites, and the path that ISIL is taking is very worrying for us – we will go to Erbil and see if things calm down,” he said.
In the car behind him, Majd Hamad, a 32-year-old university lecturer, said he and his family had already fled to Mosul from their home in Fallujah five months ago, and now they were running again.
“There is no rule of law in Mosul, armed men have taken control of the city and we need to flee to seek our safety,” he said.
“We are very worried about ISIL’s plans for Mosul and we are also scared about what might happen in Baghdad."
Other Iraqis were adamant that ISIL’s advance was not the reason they had left their homes.
Already worn down by a decade of conflict, they placed the blame firmly at the feet of Mr Maliki.
“We are scared about what the government will do, whether they will launch air strikes on Mosul without bothering to first work out a target,” said Abed Abdurahman, sitting in his car with wife Lina Khalil and their four children as they waited to cross the border into Erbil.
“Last week they bombed the area haphazardly and we think they will do it again.”
In the hastily put together refugee camp, now home to around 300 people and growing by the hour, poet and journalist Noah Mahmoud Jouneh was scathing about the government’s inability to provide security and stability for its people.
“They have had 10 years to do their job and they have failed – they have destroyed our lives and now the terrorists [ISIL] have taken charge,” he said.
“We had no choice but to leave our home.”
Human rights groups and analysts warn there are huge risks associated with Mr Maliki’s plan to push back against the Sunni insurgents.
“Maliki’s creation of a reservist army and incorporation of Shiite militias into security forces risks further abuses,” Human Rights Watch warned.
Based on interviews with more than 20 residents of towns around Baghdad, the militia, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, have carried out indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas, as well as numerous kidnappings and summary executions of Sunnis.
“PM Nouri al-Maliki can only get Iraq back by allying with nationalist Sunnis in the north. Otherwise, for him simply brutally to occupy the city with Shiite troops and artillery and aerial bombing will make him look like his neighbour, Bashar al-Assad,” Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, wrote on Thursday.