Kurdish Troops in Control of Key Iraqi Town, Official Says

Kurdish forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region have taken complete control over the disputed city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army withdrew from there, a Kurdish military spokesman was cited as saying.
Kurdish forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region have taken complete control over the disputed city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army withdrew from there, a Kurdish military spokesman was cited as saying. –KHALIL AL-A'NEI/EPA

ERBIL, Iraq — Kurdish officials said Thursday that their forces were in firm control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq after government troops had abandoned their posts, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

“The army disappeared,’’ said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, two days after militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant swept across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then began a thrust toward Baghdad, capturing the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on Wednesday.

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The apparent involvement of Kurdish pesh merga forces drew new lines in the patchwork of allegiances and alliances, adding disciplined troops whose allegiance to the central government in Baghdad is limited. 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.

On Wednesday, Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, was quoted as saying that the Kurdish minority would “work together’’ with Baghdad’s forces to “flush out these foreign fighters.’’

At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Greece, Zebari called the insurgents’ strike “a serious, mortal threat,’’ adding, “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened.’’

The urgency was underscored Thursday when an insurgent spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, exhorted the militants to advance on the Iraqi capital and press on to the southern Iraqi Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, news reports said.

The Associated Press quoted him as urging his followers to march toward Baghdad because they “have an account to settle,’’ in a recording on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

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The spokesman was also quoted as saying that a high-ranking insurgent commander, known variously as Adnan Ismail Najm and Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari, had died in the insurgent offensive. According to Adnani, the spokesman, the commander had worked closely with the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. troops in 2006.

Najm had been detained for several years but was released two years ago, enabling him to prepare and command the operations that led up to the newest incursion, the AP said.

Parliamentary leaders in Baghdad called a special session of the legislature Thursday to debate the imposition of a state of emergency that would give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wide powers to restrict citizens’ movements, impose curfews and censor the media. But by early afternoon it appeared the body would not have the quorum needed to pass the emergency decree. A senior government official told Agence France-Presse that only 128 of 325 members of parliament had attended the session, far short of the number needed for a formal vote.

Iraqi officials also said that the government was trying to deploy special forces, backed by Shiite volunteers, to the north of the country in a counteroffensive against the militants, whose commanders are said to include Baathist military officers from the Hussein era including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture during the U.S.-led occupation.

After overrunning Mosul and Tikrit, the insurgents poured down the main north-south highway to reach Samarra, about 70 miles north of the Iraqi capital.

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The city is home to a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006 during the U.S.-led occupation, igniting a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority. On the way, the insurgents were said to have taken positions in parts of the important refining town of Baiji, north of Tikrit, but there were conflicting accounts Thursday as to who was in control there and whether the refinery was operating.

In Samarra on Thursday, witnesses said, militants who had been reinforced overnight by three columns of fighters in scores of vehicles, were deployed in positions three miles east and north of the city. Other insurgents had pressed south to take the town of Dhuluiyah, closer to Baghdad, while two predominantly Shiite towns in the region, Balad and Dujail, remained in Shiite hands as forward bases for attempts to halt the insurgents.

At the same time, in what seemed to have the makings of a perilous standoff, battle-hardened Assaib and Kataibe Shiite militias that once fought the Americans had reached Samarra to reinforce pro-government forces there. Government troops who abandoned their posts further north had been ordered to report to the Taji military base, just north of Baghdad to regroup, officials said.

The swift capture of Mosul by militants crossing the border from 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.

Describing the government’s response to the insurgency, officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said Thursday that special forces and volunteers would be deployed to the north while security forces closer to the seat of government cracked down on cells of insurgent sympathizers around Baghdad.

For much of their initial advance, the insurgents have met scant resistance, with government forces shedding their uniforms, handing over weapons and equipment and abandoning checkpoints.

Separately, 49 Turkish citizens who were taken hostage after militants stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul on Wednesday were reported to be in good health and are expected to be released soon, a consulate employee told Turkish media.

The employee, an Iraqi who was not in the building at the time of the raid, said he had reached fellow workers by phone. He said they had told him that consular staff members, including the consul general, had not been harmed.

“The hostages were put into vehicles belonging to the consulate and were taken to the al-Danadan neighborhood before being taken to another area of the city. They are in good health and are expecting to be released soon,’’ he told Hurriyet Daily News.

The prime minister’s office in Turkey could not immediately confirm the report.

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