An al-Qaeda offshoot extended its gains in Iraq after capturing both the country’s second-biggest city and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, as the U.S. weighed an Iraqi request for air support.
After seizing Mosul in the north, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant moved yesterday into Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the Nineveh provincial council, said by phone. In Mosul, ISIL took dozens of people hostage at the Turkish consulate, as hundreds of thousands of residents fled.
The U.S. has yet to respond to a request from Iraq made last month to mount air attacks against militant training camps in western Iraq, according to two American officials who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. One of the officials said President Barack Obama is reluctant to revisit a war that he opposed and has repeatedly declared over.
The surge in violence across northern and central Iraq, three years after U.S. troops withdrew, has raised the prospect of a return to sectarian civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government is struggling to retain control of Sunni-majority regions, and his army units in northern Iraq collapsed in the face of the Islamist advance.
“This can’t be looked at as anything other than a comprehensive failure by the Iraqi army,” Crispin Hawes, managing director of the research firm Teneo Intelligence in London, said in a phone interview. “If the army can’t protect Mosul, how are they going to protect other cities, like Baiji. Moving southward would be the logical thing to do for ISIL.”
There were conflicting reports from Baiji, a town north of Baghdad that’s home to the nation’s largest refinery. Mayor Mohammed Mahmoud said the refinery was working normally and under guard by tribesmen and police, after earlier reports that the militants were fighting to take it over. The conflict hasn’t immediately hurt Iraq’s oil exports, though it halted repair work on an export pipeline.
The U.S., which invaded Iraq in 2003 and kept troops there until 2011, condemned the attacks by ISIL and offered its commitment to support the Iraqi government’s fight against the militants, according to a White House statement. The Obama administration is prepared to increase assistance to Iraq to combat the militants, according to the statement.
The U.S. is weighing options including expedited equipment and training for the Iraqi military, according to a White House official who also asked not to be identified. Some money may eventually come from a $5 billion fund that Obama has asked Congress to approve to help U.S. allies fight terrorism.
Maliki pledged yesterday to take swift action to recapture Mosul, and said he’ll bolster Iraq’s regular forces with volunteers.
More than 150,000 troops fled their posts in Mosul and surrounding areas, leaving behind thousands of weapons, as well as tanks and helicopters, that are now in ISIL’s possession, said Jabbar Yawer, a spokesman for ethnic Kurdish armed forces in Erbil.
The Kurdish authorities who control that part of northern Iraq have deployed more of their Peshmerga fighters to fortify defensive positions, Yawer said in a phone interview. Kirkuk, the biggest northern oil field, is under the control of the Peshmerga and “the situation is calm” there, he said.
About 500,000 civilians fled Mosul, 80 miles from the borders with Turkey and Syria, and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration. Yawer said tens of thousands of families were headed to Kurdish-controlled areas.
Financial markets plunged in Iraq and Turkey, where the slide accelerated after reports that Turkish diplomats and special forces were among those captured in Mosul. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara said at least 49 people, including the consul, were taken hostage in the raid, while an additional 31 Turks were captured by ISIL at a power plant in the city.
It said Turkey will do “whatever is necessary” to ensure their safe release. Turkey called an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels to brief allies about the kidnappings, the ministry said.
The benchmark Turkish stock index slumped 3.3 percent, the most since December. Iraqi shares fell the most in two years and the yield on the nation’s $2.7 billion of bonds due in January 2028 climbed 39 basis points to 6.9 percent.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday that the American government was prepared to support efforts to secure the hostages’ return, according to a White House statement. In a phone call with Erdogan, Biden condemned ISIL’s actions and called for immediate release of the Turkish personnel.
ISIL also is among the mostly Sunni groups fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. It established semi-permanent encampments in desert areas of western Iraq, especially in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, to provide secure bases for its fighters in Syria, the U.S. State Department said in an April report.
Now it’s showing its strength in Iraq and “will probably succeed in expanding the territory it controls in Iraq’s predominantly Sunni northern provinces” in the next six months, research firm IHS said in an e-mailed report.
In a televised speech, Maliki said ISIL won’t be allowed to stay in Mosul, adding that government forces were much stronger than the militants. Maliki, who has called for a state of emergency in areas affected by the violence, also said commanders who fled must be punished.
The sectarian violence in Iraq recalls the mass killings in the years that followed the U.S. invasion of 2003. Last year, civilian fatalities in Iraq reached 7,818, higher than in 2008, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
Maliki’s call on Shiite militias to help against ISIL was answered by Moqtada al-Sadr, a cleric whose fighters played a key part in the civil war that flared up in 2006. Al-Sadr said he’s ready to “coordinate with some government entities” and set up brigades to “defend things that are sacred,” according to the Al-Mada news agency.
The fighting in Mosul has halted repair work on the main oil pipeline to Turkey, state-run North Oil Co. said. Shipments through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, the target of frequent attacks, have been stopped since March 2.
Iraq produced 3.3 million barrels of oil a day in May, making it the second-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia. An estimated 17 percent of the country’s oil reserves are in the north, according to the Energy Information Administration. That includes the giant Kirkuk field, in a region disputed between the Baghdad government and the Kurds.