Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in an armed demonstration in January in Raqqa, northern Syria.

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in an armed demonstration in January in Raqqa, northern Syria. Photo: AP

Kirkuk: Jihadists seized Iraq's largest Christian town and surrounding areas on Thursday, sending tens of thousands of panicked residents fleeing in what is being called a humanitarian disaster, officials and witnesses said.

The onslaught saw the Sunni extremist Islamic State (IS) extend its writ over northern Iraq and move within striking distance of autonomous Kurdistan, in one of the most dramatic developments of the two month-old conflict.

IS militants moved into Qaraqosh and other towns overnight after the withdrawal of Kurdish peshmerga troops, who are stretched thin across several fronts, residents said.

This still from a propoganda video shows ISIL fighters raising their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the Jihadists' trademark flag.

This still from a propoganda video shows ISIL fighters raising their weapons as they stand on a vehicle mounted with the Jihadists' trademark flag. Photo: AFP

"Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants," Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, said.

Entirely Christian Qaraqosh lies between Mosul, the jihadists' main hub in Iraq, and Arbil, the Kurdish region's capital. It usually has a population of around 50,000.

Tal Kayf, the home of a significant Christian community as well as members of the Shabak Shiite minority, also emptied overnight. "Tal Kayf is now in the hands of the Islamic State. They faced no resistance and rolled in just after midnight," said Boutros Sargon, a resident who fled and was reached by phone in Arbil.

Smoke rises during clashes between Kurdish "Peshmerga" troops and militants of the Islamic State on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul.

Smoke rises during clashes between Kurdish "Peshmerga" troops and militants of the Islamic State on the outskirts of Sinjar, west of Mosul. Photo: Reuters

"I heard some gunshots last night and, when I looked outside, I saw a military convoy from the Islamic State... shouting 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great)."        

Pope urges protection

Pope Francis urged the international community to protect Iraq's Christians, who have emigrated en masse over the past decade as a result of successive waves of violence.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush rest upon their arrival at Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush rest upon their arrival at Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil. Photo: AFP

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, who heads Iraq's largest Christian denomination, said the overnight offensive had displaced 100,000 Christians.

"This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down," he said, adding that 1500 manuscripts had been burnt.

AFP could not immediately verify the status of those towns, which witnesses said have been completely emptied of their residents.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, sit in Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, after their arrival on Thursday. Gunmen from the Islamic State (IS) have seized Qaraqush, Iraq's largest Christian town.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, sit in Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, after their arrival on Thursday. Gunmen from the Islamic State (IS) have seized Qaraqush, Iraq's largest Christian town. Photo: AFP

The latest numbers dwarf the exodus sparked last month by an IS ultimatum to Mosul's Christians to convert to Islam, pay what it describes as jizya (protection money) or leave on pain of death.*

A peshmerga spokesman said Kurdish forces were battling the Islamic State in Qaraqosh and Al-Qosh further north, but no witnesses could corroborate that.

The spokesman also said the peshmerga were fighting in Gwer, a Kurdish community south of Qaraqosh.

Pope Francis has urged the international community to protect Iraq's Christians.

Pope Francis has urged the international community to protect Iraq's Christians. Photo: AP

The IS advance means jihadists are now within striking distance, in some areas barely 20 kilometres, of the official border of the Kurdish region and 40 kilometres from Arbil.

The group launched a devastating offensive on June 9, seizing the country's second city Mosul the next day and sweeping across much of the Sunni heartland.

Peshmerga forces apparently redeployed to Arbil some of the forces they had assigned to the disputed land they grabbed from the government during the army's initial debacle.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, rest upon their arrival at Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil.

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, rest upon their arrival at Saint-Joseph's Church in the Kurdish city of Arbil. Photo: AFP

They also beefed up security in Kirkuk, the most significant conquest they made during the June chaos, but the city was rocked by a car bomb on Thursday.

The blast ripped through a Shiite mosque where displaced people had sought refuge, killing at least eight and wounding 47, police and medical sources said.

The experienced peshmerga were thought to be a sufficient bulwark against massive further advances by the jihadists, but IS fighters have been moving stealthily across the northern Nineveh province and making surprise gains.

Kurdish "peshmerga" troops fight Islamic State militants on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh.

Kurdish "peshmerga" troops fight Islamic State militants on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh. Photo: Reuters

At the weekend, IS units took over most of the Mosul hinterland which the peshmerga had occupied after government forces retreated in June.

AFP

* Clarification: "Jizya" is an Islamic term, applicable only under legitimate Islamic ruling and within specific and limited conditions. It is understood that it should not be linked to the actions of a criminal organisation.