Iraqi authorities vowed to beat back an Islamic militant group that seized a city close to the capital of Baghdad today, after they took control of the country's second biggest city, Mosul on Tuesday.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni Muslim al Qaeda splinter group, captured former ruler Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, according to reports and moved into Iraq's biggest oil refinery town Baiji, Sky News said.
ISIS reportedly assaulted positions in and near to the city of Tikrit in Iraq on June 11.
On Tuesday, ISIS overran Mosul, taking control of government offices, military bases and police stations and seizing weapons and aircraft. Militants also captured a local prison and allowed about a thousand inmates to escape and also took control of some villages and a military air base outside of Mosul.
Anti-government fighters took control of the city of Mosul early on June 10 following fierce overnight fighting, according to reports.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said today that Iraq is facing a "mortal threat."
Speaking on the sidelines of meetings in Athens between European Union and Arab League foreign ministers, he urged immediate action. "The response has to be soon. You cannot leave these people to stay there to entrench themselves for a long time," the Associated Press reported.
Zebari, who is himself a Sunni from Mosul, said Iraqi military would work with the Kurdish regional government and its peshmerga (armed Kurdish forces) to liberate Mosul, which is the capital of Ninevah province and has a population of around population of 1.8 million residents.
It is estimated that as many as 500,000 civilians have now fled the fighting in Mosul and the surrounding area, according to the UN.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Ninevah provincial governor said today the authorities would fight to rid Mosul ISIS.
"Mosul is capable of getting back on its feet and getting rid of all the outsiders ... and we have a plan to restore security. "We have taken practical steps in order to restore order ... by mobilizing people into public committees that would retake the city," he said in remarks reported by the AP.
ISIS also seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul, taking 48 Turkish citizens captive including the consul, according to Turkish media.
Government sources told Reuters that authorities have been in contact with militants to help ensure the safety of diplomatic staff there.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called an emergency meeting with his deputy and the Undersecretary of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, according to the English language Today's Zaman.
On Tuesday, ISIS also detained 28 Turkish truck drivers who were transporting fuel to the city.
Turkish officials were reported Tuesday as saying that they were currently unharmed and authorities hoped they would be freed after they had unloaded their cargo.
Officials said on Twitter that they were currently safe.
Fall of Mosul
The fall of Mosul will be a major hit to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government, which has been struggling to contain Sunni extremists in the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency in Mosul on June 10, after insurgents seized vital areas of the city.
It may also drastically strengthen ISIS thanks to equipment and millions in cash, much of it US-supplied, seized as it took Mosul, the Institute for War said.
Tony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) told VICE News that ISIS's stunning advance threatened the security of the entire region, putting countries across the Middle East at risk.
"ISIS's seizure of Mosul is a major threat to Middle East stability, not just Iraq. It highlights the risk that Sunni Islamist extremists with past ties to al Qaeda will create an extremist enclave in both Iraq and Syria,” he said. “This could make any hope of a serious moderate rebel force emerging in Syria impossible. It could create an extremist sanctuary that could threaten Jordan and the other Arab Gulf states, make the conflict between Sunni and Shiite even worse, and push the Iraqi regime closer to Iran in self defense."
Cordesman added that the situation may force the US and its allies to prop up Maliki, despite what he described as the PM's "total unfitness to rule" and conduct which actually helped ISIS gain support in Iraq.
"Maliki has been steadily more authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive. He has made the Iraqi security force his political tool, deprived it of effective leaders, used security funds for his own profit, and brought his supporters and relatives into the command chain,” he said. “His ruthless repression of legitimate Sunni opposition and pressure on the Kurds, and lies and broken promises to Sunni tribal leaders have lost the support of Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds and empowered ISIS."
ISIS, which claims to represent the country's sizeable Sunni minority, took the western city of Fallujah early this year, but despite repeated efforts, government troops have not been able to dislodge them. ISIS is also active in Syria, just across the border from Ninevah.
There, a recent offensive has seen it advance into oil-rich Deir al-Zor and the northeast bank of the Euphrates, taking territory from Islamic brigades fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which gathers information from a network of activists in Syria, said 600 people, including 39 civilians had been killed in clashes over the past six weeks. Another 130,000 civilians, the group added, had fled the fighting.
The recent attacks have won ISIS an even larger sphere of influence, and according to some estimates it now operates in areas larger than Israel and Lebanon combined.
ISIS first appeared in Syria around April 2013 after operating in Iraq. It quickly attempted to merge with al Qaeda's official affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, but was spurned by both al-Nusra and al Qaeda leadership.
Since then, it has concentrated on seizing territory and implementing its brutal and extreme interpretation of Islamic law instead of fighting with Syrian government troops. It has been accused of many abuses and atrocities, from the kidnapping and murdering of civilians, activists, journalists, and aid agency workers, to slicing off hands, and even crucifying “spies.”
Both Islamist and secular rebel groups in Syria often clashed with its fighters as a result, and opposition forces, including an initially reluctant al-Nusra, launched a concerted attack against ISIS earlier this year, beating them back for a time to the area surrounding their stronghold of Ar-Raqqah in north central Syria.
Earlier this week, a rebel coalition in Syria called the "Operations Room for the People of the Levant" announced a new offensive intended to drive ISIS out of Aleppo province, SOHR said today.
The group is made up primarily of Islamic rebel brigades opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but also includes Kurdish groups, which have typically stuck to defending their own territory.