JUNE 11, 2014
Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital
By SUADAD AL-SALHY and TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD -- Sunni militants consolidated and extended their control over northern Iraq on Wednesday, seizing Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, threatening the strategic oil refining town of Baiji and pushing south toward Baghdad, their ultimate target, Iraqi sources said.
As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri,  was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.
"These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region," said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. "The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad."
The sudden successes of the militant forces sent hundreds of thousands of people running, some literally, from the new outbursts of violence, panicked leaders in Turkey and Syria and revived memories of bloody American struggles to wrest the same places -- Mosul and Tikrit -- from jihadist fighters a decade ago.
By late Wednesday, the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006,  during the height of the American-led occupation, touching off a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority. 
Militant commanders were reportedly threatening to destroy the shrine if its defenders refused to lay down their arms, while hundreds of Shiite fighters were said to be heading north from Baghdad to confront the attackers.
As Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray before the assault, there was speculation that they may have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin Province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: "We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, 'This is an order.' "
Residents of Tikrit reported remarkable displays of soldiers handing over their weapons and uniforms peacefully to militants who ordinarily would have been expected to kill government soldiers on the spot.
Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, himself suggested the possibility of a disloyal military in his exhortations on Tuesday for citizens to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents.
As the central government declared a 10 p.m. curfew in the capital and surrounding towns, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, called  for the formation of a special force to defend religious sites in Iraq. The authorities in neighboring Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, canceled all visas and flights for pilgrims to Baghdad and intensified security on the Iran-Iraq border, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Shiite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.
The remarkably rapid advance of the Sunni militants, who on Tuesday seized the northern city of Mosul as Iraqi forces fled or surrendered, reflects the spillover of the Sunni insurgency in Syria and the inability of Iraq's Shiite-led government to pacify the country after American forces departed in 2011 after eight years of war and occupation.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that the Iraqi conflict could draw in neighboring countries. particularly Turkey, a NATO ally. On Wednesday, insurgents were holding scores of Turkish citizens seized in Mosul over the last two days, including the Turkish consul general, other diplomats and at least three children, the Turkish government said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was holding an emergency meeting with top security officials, and the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, cut short a trip to New York and was returning to Ankara. "No one should try to test the limits of Turkey's strength," Mr. Davutoglu said in a statement.
Turkey has long taken an interest in northern Iraq for economic reasons and because of the sizable and often restive Kurdish minority, which straddles the border and controls a region of Iraq east of Mosul.
Residents of Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 110 miles south of Mosul, awoke Wednesday to find that government checkpoints had been abandoned and that insurgents, arriving in a column of 60 vehicles, were taking control of parts of the city without firing a shot, the security officials said. Peter Bouckaert, the emergency services director for Human Rights Watch, said in a post on Twitter  that the militants had seized the Baiji power station, which supplies electricity to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Salahuddin Province.
In Tikrit, residents said the militants attacked in the afternoon from three directions: east, west and north. They said there were brief exchanges of gunfire, and then police officers and soldiers shed their uniforms, put on civilian clothing and fled through residential areas to avoid the militants.
"They did not kill the soldiers or policemen who handed over their weapons, uniform and their military ID," a security official in Tikrit, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday. "They just took these things and asked them to leave."
On Wednesday, the insurgents claimed to have taken control of the entire province of Nineveh, Agence France-Presse reported, and there were reports of militants executing government soldiers in the Kirkuk region. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of the province, criticized the Iraqi army commanders in Mosul, saying they had misled the government about the situation in the city.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, was quoted on Wednesday as saying his country's Kurdish minority would "work together" with Baghdad's forces to "flush out these foreign fighters."
At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Mr. Zebari, a Kurd, called the insurgents' strike "a serious, mortal threat," adding: "The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened."
Iraqi Kurds are concentrated in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a disciplined and fiercely loyal fighting force, the pesh merga, that has not yet become involved in the clashes.
In a further indication of the regional dimensions of the crisis, the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, facing the same jihadist adversary in its civil war against a broader array of armed foes, expressed solidarity with the Iraqi authorities and armed forces, the official SANA news agency reported.
Word of the latest militant advance came as a United Nations agency reported that 500,000 people had fled Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, said the civilians had mainly fled on foot, because the militants would not let them use vehicles and had taken control of the airport. Roughly the same number were displaced from Anbar Province in western Iraq as the militants gained ground there, the organization said.
The Obama administration, which has expressed alarm about the events in Iraq and offered the government unspecified support, sharpened a longstanding travel warning to Americans on Wednesday about the risks of visiting the country. "Travel within Iraq remains dangerous given the security situation," the State Department said in an advisory.  It said American citizens remained "at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence."
Suadad al-Salhy reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Istanbul. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from London, Rick Gladstone from New York, Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, and Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran.