ISIS militants advance through Iraq
Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, in the central north of Iraq, is the latest to fall under militants’ hands, as they continue their advance towards the capital.
The lightning-fast offensive has sent alarm bells ringing in the West, with the United States reportedly considering air strikes against the group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The group, which has been fighting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, wants to create a Sunni Islamic state that straddles the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The highway from Kirkuk to Tikrit, in Iraq’s north, is now a graveyard of military vehicles.
Army tanks and armoured cars lie burning and ruined, though whether they were destroyed in battle or abandoned in the rush to escape the militants’ onslaught is not known.
Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town and 140 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, is the second provincial capital to fall to the militants in two days.
A local police officer says all of Tikrit is now in the hands of ISIS, also known as ISIL, and now they have their sights set on the capital.
A US-based monitoring group says it’s translated an audio statement released on the ISIS Twitter feed.
“Do not relent against your enemy”, the statement reportedly says. “The battle is not yet raging, but it will rage in Baghdad. Put on your belts and get ready.”
In a televised address, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri Al-Maliki, vowed that Iraq’s armed forces would be able to push the militants out.
But privately, Iraqi officials have reportedly asked US President Barack Obama consider air strikes.
Publicly, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says America wants to help Iraq defeat the militants.
“They have an ideology that is little to do with Iraqi domestic politics. It has to do with the taking of territory and terrorising the Iraqi people and so there is more that can be done. The Security reiterated the United States commitment to working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL’s continued aggression.”
The militants began their offensive on Monday, capturing large swathes of northern and north-central Iraq, including the major city of Mosul.
Up to half-a-million people have fled their homes.
Almost 50 Turkish citizens – some truck drivers, some staff from the Turkish consulate in Mosul – have been kidnapped.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister says staff had been advised to evacuate the consulate but they’d stayed, convinced it was the safest place to be.
He says there’ll be harsh retaliation if any of the Turkish citizens are harmed.
The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has echoed Turkey’s comments, and called for international support for Iraq.
“No such terrorist attack on diplomatic officers and civilians can be justified under any circumstances, under any reason.”
ISIS is one of several Sunni militant groups taking advantage of a political vacuum in Iraq.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says perhaps this offensive will force a political compromise.
“I hope this incident really will lead all Iraqi leaders to come together to face this serious, mortal threat to the country. And it could be an inducement to all of them to think about the greater interest and to resolve the problems to form a new government on the basis of a national unity government, of a partnership government, to work together.”