Al-Qaida-inspired militants seized effective control Wednesday of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, expanding their offensive closer to the Iraqi capital as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents.
BAGHDAD — Al-Qaida-inspired militants seized effective control Wednesday of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, expanding their offensive closer to the Iraqi capital as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control a day earlier of much of Mosul, the country's second-largest city, in a major blow to the authority of the country's Shiite government and a sign of Iraq's reversals since U.S. forces withdrew in late 2011.
The Sunni militants also gained entry to the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held captive 48 people, including diplomats, police, consulate employees and three children, according to an official in the office of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An estimated half a million residents fled the economically important city.
Tikrit residents reached by telephone said the militant group had taken over several police stations in the Sunni-dominated city. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.
As night fell, several hundred gunmen were in Tikrit, with clashes still taking place between the insurgents and military units on its outskirts, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra.
Two Iraqi security officials confirmed that Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, was under the control of the ISIL, and said the provincial governor was missing. Tikrit is 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
The major oil refinery in Beiji, located between Mosul and Tikrit, remained in government control, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to reporters.
Turkish officials trying to free the captives at the consulate in Mosul have been in direct contact with the militants as well as Iraqi officials and believe that the hostages are safe, said an official in Erdogan's office. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of he was not authorized to comment to reporters on the sensitive issue.
Security officials in the Turkish consulate in Mosul had allowed the militants in after being threatened with explosives, the official said.
Turkish officials trying to free the captives have been in direct contact with the militants as well as Iraqi officials and believe that the hostages are safe, he added.
Turkish officials did not make any public comment on the seizure, but the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan convened an emergency Cabinet meeting. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu canceled meetings in the U.S. to return home to coordinate a response, the ministry said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the abduction, saying he was "shocked" by the news. "This is totally unacceptable," Ban said.
Mosul's fall was a heavy defeat for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a sign of Iraq's reversals since U.S. forces left the country in late 2011. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which wants to set up a militant enclave in the region, has been capturing territory in both Iraq and neighboring Syria in that country's civil war.
Al-Maliki said the massive security failure in Sunni-dominated Ninevah province that allowed militants to seize Mosul was the result of a "conspiracy," and that those members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished.
He stopped short of assigning direct blame, however, choosing to focus instead on plans to fight back — without detailing the specifics.
"Today, the important thing is that we are working to solve the situation," a stern-faced al-Maliki said. "We are making preparations and we are regrouping the armed forces that are in charge of clearing Ninevah from those terrorists."