TIKRIT, Iraq, (Reuters) – Sunni rebels from an al Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit yesterday and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country, making further gains in their rapid military advance against the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
The threat to the Baiji refinery comes after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the northern city of Mosul, advancing their aim of creating a Sunni Caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, is a blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s attempts to defeat the militants, who have seized territory in Iraq over the past year following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
About 500,000 Iraqis have fled Mosul, home to 2 million people, and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Having also taken two small towns north of Baghdad, Dhiluiya and Yathrib, the insurgents are in control of between 10 and 15 pct of Iraqi territory, excluding Kurdistan, and have led many Iraqis to fear they have the capital, Baghdad, in their sights.
Security sources said ISIL militants on Wednesday drove more than 60 vehicles into Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which lies about 100 miles (160 km) north of Baghdad.
The militants occupied the provincial government headquarters and raised the black flag of ISIL.
“Our forces were caught by surprise, they never expected ISIL would use police and army Humvee vehicles, we mistook them for government forces and it was too late to stop them,” said a police captain who fled from Tikrit to Samarra.
“We are fighting devils and not ordinary people”.
Around 100 ISIL fighters held mass prayers in central Tikrit after taking control. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq’s leaders must unite to face a “mortal” threat. “There has to be a quick response to what has happened,” he said during a trip to Greece.
Zebari said Baghdad would work with forces from Kurdistan in the north to drive the fighters out of Mosul after Iraqi security forces there fled on Tuesday.
Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a “conspiracy” and said those who had abandoned their posts would be punished. He also said Iraqis were volunteering in several provinces to join army brigades to fight ISIL.
In a show of the militants’ reach, a car bombing in a crowded market in the town of Safwan, which sits on Iraq’s southernmost border with Kuwait, killed five people.
In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan “to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates”, referring to the province of Nineveh of which the city is the capital.
Militants executed 10 soldiers and policemen on Wednesday near the town of Riyadh, 60 km (40 miles) southwest of Kirkuk, after setting up a checkpoint on the road, police sources said, while in Tikrit six police officers were executed.