BAGHDAD — Sunni militants consolidated and extended their control Wednesday over northern Iraq, seizing Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, threatening the strategic oil refining town of Baiji, and pushing south toward Baghdad, their ultimate target, Iraqi sources said.
As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Saddam era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Saddam government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.
“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army, and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. “The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad.”
The sudden successes of the militant forces sent hundreds of thousands of people running, some literally, from the fresh outbursts of violence, panicked leaders in Turkey and Syria, and revived memories of bloody US struggles to wrest the same places — Mosul and Tikrit — from jihadist fighters a decade ago.
By late Wednesday, the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shi’ite shrine that was bombed in 2006, during the height of the US-led occupation, touching off a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and Shi’ite majority.
Militant commanders were reportedly threatening to destroy the shrine if its defenders refused to lay down their arms, while hundreds of Shi’ite fighters were said to be heading north from Baghdad to confront the attackers.
As Iraqi government forces crumbled before the assault, there was speculation that they might have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: “We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, ‘This is an order.’ ”
Residents of Tikrit reported remarkable displays of soldiers handing over their weapons and uniforms peacefully to militants who ordinarily would have been expected to kill government soldiers on the spot.
Maliki, a Shi’ite, himself suggested the possibility of a disloyal military in his exhortations Tuesday for citizens to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents.
As the central government declared a 10 p.m. curfew in the capital and surrounding towns, an influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, called for the formation of a special force to defend religious sites in Iraq. The authorities in neighboring Iran, which is predominantly Shi’ite, canceled all visas and flights for pilgrims to Baghdad and intensified security on the Iran-Iraq border, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Shi’ite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with between 2,500 and 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shi’ite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade, and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.
The remarkably rapid advance of the Sunni militants, who Tuesday seized the northern city of Mosul as Iraqi forces fled or surrendered, reflects the spillover of the Sunni insurgency in Syria and the inability of Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government to pacify the country after US forces departed in 2011 after eight years of war and occupation.
Word of the latest militant advance came as a UN agency reported that 500,000 people had fled Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city, with a population of about 2 million. The International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, said the civilians had mainly fled on foot because the militants would not let them use vehicles and had taken control of the airport. Roughly the same number were displaced from Anbar province in western Iraq as the militants gained ground there, the organization said.
The Obama administration, which has expressed alarm about the events in Iraq and has offered the government unspecified support, sharpened a longstanding travel warning to Americans on Wednesday about the risks of visiting the country.