Washington: Iraqi officials have privately asked US President Barack Obama's administration to weigh potential air strikes targeting militants, a Western official said, as Sunni militants extended their control over parts of northern and western Iraq.
Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray on Wednesday as the militants overran the city of Tikrit, seized facilities in the strategic oil refining town of Baiji, and threatened an important Shiite shrine in Samarra on their move south towards Baghdad.
The Obama administration is weighing several possibilities to offer military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, the official said,but Baghdad has not yet formulated an official request, a US defence official said.
Washington was committed to "working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL's continued aggression", US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. .
The remarkably rapid advance of the Sunni militants,who had earlier seized the northern city of Mosul as Iraqi forces fled or surrendered, reflects the spillover of the Sunni insurgency in Syria and the inability of Iraq's Shiite-led government to pacify the country after US forces departed in 2011 following eight years of war and occupation.
On Thursday Iraqi Kurds took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk after government forces abandoned their posts. Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north, swept into bases in Kirkuk vacated by the army, 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 and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historical capital, and peshmerga units were already present in an uneasy balance with government forces.
The swift move by their highly organised security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by fighters of the Al Qaeda offshoot has redrawn Iraq's map.
Witnesses in Samarra, 110 kilometres north of Baghdad, were reporting that the militants, many of them aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, were on the outskirts of the city. They said the militants demanded that forces loyal to the government leave the city or a sacred Shiite shrine there would be destroyed. Samarra is known for the shrine, the al-Askari Mosque, which was severely damaged in a 2006 bombing during the height of the US-led occupation. That event touched off sectarian mayhem between the country's Sunni Arab minority and its Shiite majority.
Members of Shiite militias were on high alert in Baghdad, and many were reported to be heading north to Samarra, even though the central government declared a 10pm curfew in the capital and surrounding towns.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised that the battle would "rage" on Baghdad and Karbala, a city south-west of the capital that is considered one of the holiest sites for Shi'ite Muslims, US-based monitoring group SITE Intelligence Group said.
Insurgents also were holding 80 Turkish citizens seized in Mosul over the last two days, including the Turkish consul general, other diplomats and at least three children, the Turkish government said. Thirty-one of the Turkish hostages were truck drivers who had been transporting fuel to a power plant in Mosul.
Amid the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, Tikrit and other northern cities, questions were 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 Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, suggested the possibility of disloyalty in the army when he exhorted Iraqi citizens on Tuesday to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents. He ordered a state of emergency for the entire country and called on friendly governments for assistance in a quickly deteriorating situation.
Citizens in Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 180 kilometres south of Mosul, awoke on Wednesday 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.
In Tikrit, 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, while others gave up their weapons and uniforms willingly.
On Wednesday, the insurgents claimed to have taken control of the entire province of Nineveh, Agence France-Presse reported, and there were reports of militants executing government soldiers in the Kirkuk region.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was quoted as saying his country's Kurdish minority would "work together" with Baghdad's forces to "flush out these foreign fighters."
Iraqi Kurds are concentrated in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a disciplined and fiercely loyal fighting force, the peshmerga. Jabbar Yawer, a spokesman for ethnic Kurdish armed forces in Erbil, said peshmerga forces had been deployed to fortify defensive positions in Erbil.
Word of the latest militant advance came as a UN agency the International Organisation for Migration reported that 500,000 people had fled Mosul – Iraq's second-largest city, with a population of about 2 million – after the militants, spilling over the border from Syria, captured military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters.
New York Times, AFP, Washington Post, Reuters