BAGHDAD — A rebel juggernaut that captured Iraq’s second-largest city and raced nearly 200 miles south in three days, raising fears of an imminent assault on Baghdad, stalled for a second day Saturday about 60 miles north of the capital, leaving residents bracing for a siege that so far has not happened.
While some Baghdad residents scrambled to leave, hoarded food, or rushed to join auxiliary militias to defend the city, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their allies halted their advance within a two-hour drive to the north, and there was no indication that they were seeking to push into Baghdad proper.
The rebel leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had boasted that he would soon take the capital and press on to the Shi’ite heartland in southern Iraq, fell silent as his followers worked to consolidate their gains in predominantly Sunni parts of the country, instead of trying to fight their way through more heavily defended, Shi’ite-dominated areas.
There were reports of fresh clashes in Dujail, Ishaqi, and Dhuliuya in Salahuddin province, just north of Baghdad, as newly armed Shi’ite militias surged to confront the largely Sunni insurgents.
However, there did not appear to be any decisive engagements between the insurgents and the Iraqi military, and there was no clear evidence to support a claim by an Iraqi general on Saturday that the Iraqi army had rolled the militants back in on those towns.
The United States sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, positioning it closer to Iraq.
The Iraqi authorities used the breather to recruit citizens to reinforce the country’s beleaguered military, while worried Baghdad residents began to stockpile essentials, sending prices skyrocketing Saturday, the end of the Iraqi weekend.
Cooking gas quadrupled in price, to about $20 on Saturday from about $5 on Thursday for a 35-pound container. The dollar, normally stable here, spiked about 5 percent overnight. And the price of potatoes increased sixfold, to about $4.50 a pound.
A military spokesman, General Qassim Atta, said government forces had reclaimed ground in the northern provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala, and Ninevah, and insisted the capital was safe.
“The security in Baghdad is 100 percent stable,” Atta said. “The majority of Salahuddin province has been regained. The morale of the security forces is very high.”
But there were reports of continued skirmishing Saturday in many of the places he said were back in government control.
The advance of the Sunni extremists brought under their influence a broad swath of territory beginning about 60 miles north of the capital, and extending 220 miles north to Mosul and 200 miles west to the deserts of Anbar province, where the insurgents have controlled the city of Fallujah for the past six months.
The territory essentially reconstitutes what the US military, during its war here, called the Sunni Triangle, an area where Sunnis predominated and which provided fertile ground for the rise of the Sunni insurgency and allies, including expelled officials of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. It was also the area that saw the most US casualties of the war.
The new Sunni Triangle’s apex extends farther north than before, reaching beyond Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown, another 140 miles north into Ninevah province. Its base is not quite as far south as before.
In 2008, it included a belt of Sunni communities south of Baghdad, leaving the city surrounded; now, the base remains north and just west of the capital, although as close as the western suburb of Abu Ghraib, where there have been reports of scattered insurgent violence.
The new Sunni Triangle does not encircle the capital the way the old one did, which made travel outside Baghdad a matter of braving a hostile gantlet.
But this time, the militants have managed to imperil all three of the major highways leading to the north and Kurdistan, effectively cutting Kurdistan off from the rest of Iraq and worsening the risk that the country could be dismembered.
During the US war, all roads to the north remained open, if dangerous, and those to Kurdistan were safe once travelers left the capital.
Also, the Sunni Triangle during the US war never posed a threat to the country or the possibility that militants might overrun Baghdad. US military might, air support, and intense intelligence efforts made that outcome implausible.
None of that exists now. The Iraqis have said they would welcome outside aid, and officials warn they might have to ask for Iranian assistance if America is not forthcoming, particularly in air support. They have denied reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Brigades foreign force, is already in the country.
Whether the militants had given up on Baghdad or just paused to reconsider their next move was unclear.
People in the capital were relieved but still worried. Runs on banks stopped, and gasoline for cars was no longer running out, even as other products spiked in price. Flights out remained overbooked.
ISIS is about 75 miles away from Baghdad, said Hisham al-Habobi, an independent political analyst in the capital. “This means they can be here in two hours.”