Militants seeking to create an extremist Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East seized more Iraqi territory Thursday as their leaders vowed to fight on toward Baghdad, the capital, and government forces fled the onslaught.
Iraqi Prime Minister
Maliki has sought authority to impose curfews and control public gatherings and the media, powers he claims to need to combat the Al Qaeda-spawned Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The militia seized one of Iraq's biggest cities, Mosul, on Tuesday and has swept through disgruntled Sunni communities with little resistance to take control of a broad swath of Iraqi territory between Baghdad's northern suburbs and the Syrian border.
Many Iraqi army troops, like residents of the rest of the country riven by sectarian divides, have fled their positions ahead of the ISIS sweep, abandoning their weapons and armored vehicles to the invaders. Masked militants were seen revving around Mosul in a U.S.-made Humvee and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns on Wednesday, after raiding the government's stores of weapons and vehicles.
Peshmerga security troops from Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq whose fighters have a more valiant battle record than the retreat-prone Iraqi forces, deployed to Kirkuk. The city is a key part of Iraq's oil trade and the Peshmerga troops are expected to protect abandoned military facilities and oil industry assets, news agencies in the area reported.
"We do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents," said Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior Peshmerga officer, according to the Associated Press.
ISIS fighters fanned out in several directions from their new stronghold in Mosul, capturing the town of Sinjar to the west near the Syrian border and extending their reach as far south as Tarmiyah, just 30 miles outside of Baghdad. The militants already control much of the territory north and west of central Iraq, as well as the longtime Sunni insurgent strongholds of Fallouja, Ramadi, Tikrit and Anbar province.
Security analysts attribute the militants' swift success in conquering strategic Iraqi territory to the resentment felt by many Iraqi Sunnis toward Maliki's hard-line Shiite government, which is accused of using the army and security forces in sectarian attacks on the Muslim minority.
In an audio recording posted on jihadist websites, an ISIS spokesman vowed to press on to the Iraqi capital.
"We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there," the militant boasted in the recording that the AP said appeared genuine. The spokesman also said ISIS fighters would capture the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf.
In neighboring Iran, which has mended relations with Iraq since the
Rouhani called the ISIS fighters "barbaric" and pledged to help its neighbor drive out the militants.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Times staff writer Williams reported from Los Angeles.