IRAQ was plunged into further chaos last night as insurgents from an al-Qaeda splinter group extended their control from the major northern city of Mosul to an area further south which includes the country’s biggest oil refinery, in a devastating blow to the Baghdad government.
Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (Isis) – known for their ruthless tactics including beheadings and suicide bombings – drove into the town of Baiji in armed vehicles, torching the courthouse and police station after freeing prisoners. According to later reports, Isis fighters were advancing on Baghdad.
They reportedly offered safe passage to some 250 men guarding the refinery on the outskirts of Baiji late on Tuesday, about 125 miles south of Mosul, on condition they leave.
Isis – also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – seized Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein, yesterday with dozens of insurgents attacking security forces near the headquarters of the Salaheddin provincial government in the city centre.
Isis consists of hardline Sunni militants waging sectarian war on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier.
They control considerable territory in eastern Syria and western and central Iraq.
Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari called on political leaders to come together to face “the serious, mortal” threat posed by Isis. “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened,” he said during a meeting with the European Union and Arab League in Athens.
Mr Zebari said Baghdad would work with forces in the Kurdish autonomous region to drive the fighters from Mosul.
Baiji resident Jasim al-Qaisi told reporters that Isis fighters had asked senior tribal chiefs in Baiji to persuade local police and soldiers not to resist their takeover.
Mr Qaisi said: “Yesterday at sunset some gunmen contacted the most prominent tribal sheikhs in Baiji via cellphone and told them: ‘We are coming to die or control Baiji, so we advise you to ask your sons in the police and army to lay down their weapons and withdraw before [Tuesday] evening prayer’.”
The Baiji refinery can process 300,000 barrels of oil a day and supplies most of Iraq’s provinces and is a major provider of power to Baghdad.
The push into Baiji began hours after Isis fighters over-ran Mosul, one of the great Sunni historic cities, advancing its aim of creating a hardline Sunni caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria. An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have already fled Mosul, home to around 1.7 million people, and the surrounding province, the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday.
The fall of Mosul is a slap in the face to Baghdad’s efforts to quash Sunni militants who have regained ground and strength in Iraq over the past year, seizing Sunni towns of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in the desert west of Baghdad at the start of the year.
The United States, which pulled its troops out from Iraq two and half years ago, pledged to help Iraqi leaders “push back against this aggression” as prime minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency. It said Washington would support “a strong, co-ordinated response”, adding that “Isis is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region”.
Isis control in the Sunni Anbar province as well as around Mosul in the north, would help the Islamist group consolidate its grip along the frontier with Syria, where it is fighting the forces of president Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shiite Iran.
Fleeing residents said Isis fighters were leaving their stamp everywhere in the cities they seized, planting their black flags and banners on police stations, army barracks and other government buildings.
“They are all masked, but they don’t do us any harm,” said a 13-year old boy, describing the militants who pushed into his hometown of Mosul.
A 40-year old man, who fled Mosul with his family, said: “We are frightened because we don’t know who they are.
“They call themselves the revolutionaries.
“They told us not to be scared and that they came to liberate and free us from oppression.”
Critics say the failure of Mr Maliki, a Shiite Muslim in power for eight years, to address grievances among the Sunni minority which ruled Saddam’s Iraq has led to a rise in Sunni militancy and pushed Sunni groups and tribes to rally behind Isis.
Mr Maliki has failed to form a government after elections earlier this year.
Many Sunnis feel disenfranchised and some have made common cause with foreign Islamist radicals, first against the US troops that overthrew Saddam in 2003 and now Shi’ite-led Iraqi forces.
Most families fled north towards the nearby Kurdistan region, where Iraq’s ethnic Kurds have autonomy and their own large and disciplined military force, the Peshmerga.
Some officials in Baghdad spoke of seeking help for Mosul from Kurdish Peshmerga, which have long been a force in the jockeying between Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis for influence and, especially, for control of oilfields in the north of Iraq. Two officials in the Peshmerga said last night that there was no military co-ordination with Baghdad yet, but that on the ground locally there was some co-ordination between Iraqi army and Kurdish forces.
Asked whether the Peshmerga would try to enter Mosul, spokesman Halgurd Hikmat said that depended on the president of the region and that a formal request would have to be made by Mr Maliki.
Isis, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al-Qaeda’s international leader, Osama bin Laden’s former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al-Qaeda fighters in Syria. The group, originally rooted in austere Sunni groups like the Tawhid, fought US and Iraqi forces after Saddam’s fall and the Shiite rise to power that ended decades of Sunni rule.
Isis regards Shiites as heretics.
It has posted images of its fighters wearing black balaclavas on its “Nineveh State” Twitter account, interspersed with verses from the Koran. The group styled the Mosul offensive “Enter Upon Them Through The Gates” and urged Sunnis to join them in the fight against Mr Maliki’s “Safavid” army – a reference to the Persian dynasty that promoted Shiite Islam.
“Join the ranks oh brothers!” ran one slogan. “Maliki’s tyrannical strength no match for pious believers.”
In the province of Salahuddin, Isis fighters overran three villages torching police stations, town halls and local council buildings before raising the Isis banner.
Nearly 800 people were killed in violence across Iraq in May – the highest monthly death toll so far this year. Last year was the deadliest since the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-7.