BAGHDAD/ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurds
took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday after
government forces abandoned their posts in the face of a sweeping Sunni
Islamist rebel push towards Baghdad that threatens Iraq's future as a
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 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
has redrawn Iraq's map.
Since Tuesday, black clad ISIL fighters have seized Iraq's second
biggest city Mosul and Tikrit, home town of former dictator Saddam
Hussein, as well as other towns and cities north of Baghdad. They
continued their lightning advance on Thursday, moving into towns
just an hour's drive from the capital.
The army of the Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government
in Baghdad has essentially fled in the face of the onslaught,
abandoning buildings and weapons to the fighters who aim to create a
strict Sunni Caliphate on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier.
The stunning advance of ISIL, effectively seizing northern Iraq's
main population centres in a matter of days, is the biggest threat
to Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of
people have fled their homes in fear.
The administration of President Barack Obama has come under fire for
failing to do enough to shore up the government in Baghdad before
pulling out its troops. Security and police sources said Sunni
militants now controlled parts of the small town of Udhaim, 90 km
(60 miles) north of Baghdad, after most of the army troops left
their positions and withdrew towards the nearby town of Khalis.
“We are waiting for supporting troops and we are determined not to
let them take control. We are afraid that terrorists are seeking to
cut the main highway that links Baghdad to the north," said a police
officer in Udhaim.
OIL PRICE SURGE
The global oil benchmark jumped more than $2 on Thursday, as
concerns mounted that the violence could disrupt supplies from the
OPEC exporter. Iraq's main oil export facilities are in the largely
Shi'ite areas in the south and were "very, very safe", oil minister
Abdul Kareem Luaibi said.
ISIL fighters have overrun the town of Baiji, site of the main oil
refinery which meets Iraq's domestic demand for fuel. Luaibi said
the refinery itself was still in government hands.
In Tikrit, video footage showed dozens of members of a police
special forces battalion held prisoner, paraded before a crowd by
fighters who overran their base.
Militants have set up military councils to run the towns they
captured, residents said.
“They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for
blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They
picked a retired general to run the town,” said a tribal figure from
the town of Alam, north of Tikrit.
“'Our final destination will be Baghdad, the decisive battle will be
there,' that’s what their leader of the militants group kept
repeating," the tribal figure said.
Security was stepped up in Baghdad to prevent the Sunni militants
from reaching the capital, which is itself divided into Sunni and
Shi'ite neighbourhoods and saw ferocious sectarian street fighting
in 2006-2007 under U.S. occupation.
By midday on Thursday insurgents had not entered Samarra, the next
big city in their path on the Tigris north of Baghdad.
“The situation inside Samarra is very calm today and I can’t see any
presence of the militants. Life is normal here,” said Wisam Jamal, a
government employee in the mainly Sunni city which houses Shi'ite
The million-strong Iraqi army, trained by the United States at a
cost of nearly $25 billion, is hobbled by low morale and corruption.
Its effectiveness is hurt by the perception in Sunni areas that it
pursues the hostile interests of Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
Under U.S. occupation, Washington encouraged Baghdad to reach out to
Sunnis, but since U.S. forces withdrew, Maliki has alienated much of
the Sunni political leadership, creating resentment that insurgents
In Washington, an Obama administration official said Maliki's
government had in the past sought U.S. air strikes against ISIL
positions. The White House suggested such strikes were not being
considered and Washington's main focus now is on building up
Iraq's parliament was due to hold an
extraordinary session on Thursday to vote on declaring a state of
emergency, but failed to reach a quorum, a sign of the sectarian
political dysfunction that has paralysed decision-making in Baghdad.
About 500,000 Iraqis have fled Mosul, home to 2 million people, and
the surrounding province, many seeking safety in autonomous
Kurdistan, a region that has prospered while patrolled by the
powerful peshmerga, avoiding the violence that has plagued the rest
of Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The Kurdish capture of Kirkuk instantly overturns the fragile
balance of power that has held Iraq together as a state since
Iraq's Kurds have done well since 2003, running their own affairs
while being given a fixed percentage of the country's overall oil
revenue. But with full control of Kirkuk - and the vast oil deposits
beneath it - they could earn more on their own, eliminating the
incentive to remain part of a failing Iraq.
Maliki's army already lost control of much of the Euphrates valley
west of the capital to ISIL last year, and with the evaporation of
the army in the Tigris valley to the north this week, the government
could be left in control only of Baghdad and areas south.
The surge also potentially leaves the long desert frontier between
Iraq and Syria effectively in ISIL hands, advancing its stated goal
of erasing the border altogether and creating a single state ruled
according to mediaeval Islamic principles.
Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a "conspiracy" and said the
security forces 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 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 were reported to have executed soldiers and policemen
after their seizure of some towns.
In Mosul, 80 Turkish citizens were being held hostage by ISIL, the
foreign ministry in Ankara said, after its consulate there was
overrun. Turkey threatened to retaliate if any of the group, which
included special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, were
Ambassadors of the NATO defence alliance held an emergency meeting
in Brussels at Turkey's request and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
held talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden about the
ISIL, 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.
In Syria it controls swathes of territory, funding its advances
through taxing local businesses, seizing aid and selling oil. In
Iraq, it has carried out regular bombings against Shi'ite civilians,
killing hundreds a month. The violence in Iraq raised fears about
the outlook for oil supplies, with futures prices in New York pushed
higher towards $110 a barrel.
(Additional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit; writing by Peter
Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)