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The New York Times

12 Jun 2014

By TIM ARANGO, SUADAD AL-SALHY and RICK GLADSTONE

ERBIL, Iraq — Kurdish forces exploited the mayhem convulsing Iraq on Thursday to seize complete control of the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk as government troops fled in the face of advancing Sunni militants. The insurgents pressed their advance southward toward Baghdad, warned officials of occupied Mosul to renounce allegiance to the central government and threatened to destroy religious shrines sacred to Shiites.

 

 

At the same time, militias of Iraq’s Shiite majority rushed to fill the vacuum left by the abrupt disintegration in the government’s security forces, vowing to confront the Sunni militants, defend Baghdad and protect other threatened cities including Samarra, 70 miles north of the capital. Thousands of volunteers were reported to be mobilizing. “We hope that all the Shiite groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shiite areas,” said Abu Mujahid, one of the militia leaders.

 

The Sunni militants, who include many aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as well as loyalists to the old Saddam Hussein government swept from power by the American-led invasion a decade ago, have confronted the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki with its worst crisis and threatened to plunge Iraq into a sectarian war. They routed government forces from the city of Mosul, Mr. Hussein’s home city of Tikrit and smaller cities closer to Baghdad this week in a lightning advance. The disarray in Mr. Maliki’s military, with many soldiers surrendering their American-made weapons and gear to the Sunni militants, has further compounded the crisis.

 

Kurdish Troops in Control of Kirkuk

 

The swift capture of Mosul by militants, many of them from across the border in Syria, underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have fused into a widening regional insurgency that jihadist militants have cast as the precursor to establishing an Islamic caliphate.

 

There were reports late on Thursday that units of Iraq’s Air Force had conducted intensive strikes on western areas of Tikrit to drive out the Sunni militants, but there was no word on whether the effort had succeeded.

 

Earlier, a Sunni militant leader contacted in Tikrit said that representatives of all the insurgent factions, including members of Saddam Hussein’s tribe, had met privately there to formulate a plan for governing their newly won slice of northern Iraq, and that they sought to reassure residents of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, that they could return to their homes and jobs. Tens of thousands of Mosul residents fled on Tuesday.

 

Some residents who remained in Mosul reported on Thursday that militants used mosque loudspeakers and leaflets to invite all soldiers, police officers and other government loyalists to go to the mosques and renounce their allegiance to the Baghdad authorities or face death. The occupiers also banned sales of alcohol and cigarettes and ordered women to stay home.

 

“The apostates who served at the army and police and the other services, we tell them that the door of repentance is open for whoever wants it,” the occupiers said in the leaflets. “But who insists on apostasy, he will be killed.”

 

Leaders of Iraq’s Kurds, who have carved out their own autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, said their forces had taken full control of Kirkuk as government troops abandoned their posts there. “The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.

 

Unlike the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, are disciplined and loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state. With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the center of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad. The disappearance of the Iraqi Army from the city appeared to leave Kirkuk’s fate in the Kurds’ hands, and some Kurdish politicians quickly sought to take advantage, arguing that it was a moment to permanently seize control of Kirkuk and surrounding lands.

 

“I hope that the Kurdish leadership will not miss this golden opportunity to bring Kurdish lands in the disputed territories back under Kurdish control,” Shoresh Haji, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s Parliament, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera. “It is a very sad situation for Mosul, but at the same time, history has presented us with only one or two other moments at which we could regain our territory, and this is an opportunity we cannot ignore.”

 

There were unconfirmed reports that Iran, an ally of Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-led government, had sent Revolutionary Guards into Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militia leaders contacted in Baghdad said they knew of no such assistance from Iran and had not asked for any. “We have thousands of volunteers; some of them are well trained and experienced,” said a Shiite militia leader who identified himself by his first name, Ali. “We do not need to get any troops from outside, neither the Americans nor the Iranians.”

 

Iran’s state-run news media reported this week that the country had strengthened its forces along the Iraq border and suspended all pilgrim visas into Iraq but had received no request from Iraq for military help.

 

Russia expressed alarm Thursday over the Iraq crisis, and the Interfax news agency quoted the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, as saying, “We warned long ago that the adventurism the Americans and the British started there would not end well.”

 

The Sunni insurgents, flush with success, bragged that they would advance to Baghdad and press into the Shiite-dominated south, home to the cities of Karbala and Najaf, among the holiest of Shiite Islam.

 

 

 

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