Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.
That seizure followed the capture of much of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the previous day. The group and its allies among local tribesmen also hold the city of Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.
Baghdad does not appear to be in imminent danger from a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital in recent months.
The capital, with its large Shiite population, would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by the Shiite-led government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias if they tried to advance on the capital.
In contrast, online video posted Thursday showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the militant takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted "God is great," and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.
The Islamic State's spokesman vowed to take the fight into the capital at the heart of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. In a sign of the group's confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.
"We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there," he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group's autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.
Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.
"We decided to move ... because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents," said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.
A force of 20 pick-up trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.
Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint Thursday in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
After Mosul's fall, al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him the "necessary powers" to run the country — something legal experts said could include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.
Lawmakers tried to hold a session to approve the measure Thursday, but too few showed up and they were unable to reach quorum to vote.
Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, offered his country's support to Iraq in its "fight against terrorism" during a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian state TV reported.
Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has built close ties with Iraq's postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as "barbaric" and said that his country's highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.
The Islamic State aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It has been able to push deep into parts of the Iraqi Sunni heartland once controlled by U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.
The White House said Wednesday that the United States was "deeply concerned" about the Islamic State's continued aggression.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group's advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis "without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price," deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.
There were no reliable estimates of casualties or the number of insurgents involved, though several hundred gunmen were involved in the Tikrit fight, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra. An even larger number of militants likely would have been needed to secure Mosul, a much bigger city.
Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.
Mosul's fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections — the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 — but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.
In addition to being Saddam's hometown, Tikrit was a power base of his once-powerful Baath Party. The former dictator was captured by U.S. forces while hiding in a hole in the area and he is buried south of town in a tomb draped with the Saddam-era Iraqi flag.
Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.
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