Al-Qaida-inspired militants seized effective control Wednesday of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, expanding their offensive closer to the Iraqi capital as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control a day earlier of much of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in a major blow to the authority of the country’s Shiite government. An estimated half a million residents fled the economically important city.
Residents reached by telephone in Sunni-dominated Tikrit said the Sunni militant group had taken over several police stations. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.
Two Iraqi security officials confirmed Tikrit was under the control of the ISIL, and said the provincial governor was missing. The officials insisted their names not be used because they weren’t authorized to release the information. Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, is 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the massive security failure in Sunni-dominated Ninevah province that allowed militants to seize Mosul was the result of a “conspiracy,” and that those members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished.
He stopped short of assigning direct blame, however, choosing to focus instead on plans to fight back — without detailing the specifics.
“Today, the important thing is that we are working to solve the situation,” a stern-faced al-Maliki said. “We are making preparations and we are regrouping the armed forces that are in charge of clearing Ninevah from those terrorists.”
The stunning assault by the al-Qaida-inspired group saw black banner-waving insurgents raid government buildings, push out security forces and capture military vehicles as residents fled for their lives.
Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province. It and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.
Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi told reporters that “Mosul is capable of getting back on its feet and getting rid of all the outsiders,” and said authorities planned to mobilize residents into popular militias that would play a role in retaking the city.
There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the assault but the rampage sent an estimated 500,000 people fleeing from the city and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Some simply crossed to the eastern bank of the Tigris River to avoid the worst of the fighting, while others made their way to the Ninevah countryside or sought refuge in the nearby semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Getting into that area has grown trickier, however, with migrants without family members already in the enclave needing to secure permission from Kurdish authorities, according to the IOM.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the fall of the major northern city to insurgents must push the country’s leaders to work together and deal with the “serious, continued…