IRBIL, Iraq — Kurdish forces exploited the mayhem convulsing Iraq on Thursday to seize complete control of the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk as government troops fled in the face of advancing Sunni militants. The insurgents pressed their advance southward toward Baghdad, warning officials of occupied Mosul to renounce allegiance to the central government and threatening to destroy religious shrines sacred to all Shi’ites.
At the same time, militias of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority rushed to fill the vacuum left by the abrupt disintegration in the government’s security forces, vowing to confront the Sunni militants, defend Baghdad, and protect other threatened cities including Samarra, 70 miles north of the capital. Thousands of volunteers were reported mobilizing.
“We hope that all the Shi’ite groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shi’ite areas,” said Abu Mujahid, one of the militia leaders.
The Sunni militants, many aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as well as loyalists to the old Saddam Hussein government swept from power by the US-led invasion a decade ago, have confronted the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with its worst crisis and threatened to plunge Iraq into a full-blown sectarian war.
They routed government forces from the city of Mosul, Saddam’s home city of Tikrit and smaller cities closer to Baghdad this week in a lightning advance. The disarray in Maliki’s military, with many soldiers deserting and surrendering their US-made weapons and gear to the Sunni militants, has further compounded the crisis.
The swift capture of Mosul by militants, many of them from across the border in Syria, has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have fused into a widening regional insurgency that jihadist militants have cast as the precursor to establishing an Islamic caliphate.
There were reports late Thursday that units of Iraq’s air force had conducted intense strikes on western areas of Tikrit to drive out the Sunni militants, but there was no word on whether the effort had succeeded.
Earlier, a Sunni militant leader contacted in Tikrit said representatives of all the insurgent factions, including members of Saddam’s tribe, had met privately there to formulate a plan for governing their newly won slice of northern Iraq and seek to reassure residents of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, that they could return to their homes and jobs. Tens of thousands of Mosul residents fled Tuesday.
Some residents who remained in Mosul reported Thursday that militants used mosque loudspeakers and leaflets to invite all soldiers, police officers and other government loyalists to go to the mosques and renounce their allegiance to the Baghdad authorities or face death. The occupiers also banned sales of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes and ordered women to stay home.
“The apostates who served at the army and police and the other services, we tell them that the door of repentance is open for who ever wants it,” the occupiers said in the leaflets. “But who insists on apostasy he will be killed.”
Leaders of Iraq’s Kurds, who have carved out their own autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, said their forces had taken full control of Kirkuk, as government troops abandoned their posts there.
“The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.
Unlike the Iraqi army, the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are disciplined and loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state. With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the center of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad.
Iran’s state-run news media reported earlier this week that the country had strengthened its forces along the Iraq border and suspended all pilgrim visas into Iraq but had received no request from Iraq for military help.
Russia expressed alarm Thursday over the crisis, and Interfax news agency quoted Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov as saying: “We warned long ago that the adventurism the Americans and the British started there would not end well.”
The Sunni insurgents, flush with success, bragged that they would advance to Baghdad and press into the Shi’ite-dominated south, home to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, among the holiest of Shi'ite Islam.
In a recording posted on militant websites, an insurgent spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, exhorted followers to march toward Baghdad and beyond because they “have an account to settle,” according to the Associated Press.
The spokesman was also quoted as saying that a high-ranking insurgent commander known variously as Adnan Ismail Najm or Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari had died in the offensive.
According to Adnani, the commander had worked closely with the Jordanian-born former leader of Al Qaueda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US troops in 2006.
The militant commanders are said to include Ba’athist military officers from the Saddam era, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture during the US-led occupation.
Douri took time Thursday afternoon to visit the former dictator’s grave in the town of Awja, about 3 miles from Tikrit, a militant leader said.