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, warned officials of occupied Mosul to renounce allegiance to the central government and threatened to destroy religious shrines sacred to Shiites.
At the same time, militias of Iraq’s Shiite 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 to be mobilizing.
“We hope that all the Shiite groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shiite areas,’’ said Abu Mujahid, one of the militia leaders.
The Sunni militants, who include many aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as well as loyalists to the old Saddam Hussein government swept from power by the U.S.-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 al-Maliki’s military, with many soldiers surrendering their U.S.-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 intensive 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 that 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 that they sought 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 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 whoever 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. The disappearance of the Iraqi army from the city appeared to leave Kirkuk’s fate in the Kurds’ hands, and some Kurdish politicians quickly sought to take advantage, arguing that it was a moment to permanently seize control of Kirkuk and surrounding lands.
“I hope that the Kurdish leadership will not miss this golden opportunity to bring Kurdish lands in the disputed territories back under Kurdish control,’’ Shoresh Haji, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s parliament, was quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera. “It is a very sad situation for Mosul, but at the same time, history has presented us with only one or two other moments at which we could regain our territory, and this is an opportunity we cannot ignore.’’
There were unconfirmed reports that Iran, an ally of al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, had sent Revolutionary Guards into Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militia leaders contacted in Baghdad said they knew of no such assistance from Iran, and had not asked for any.
“We have thousands of volunteers, some of them are well trained and experienced,’’ said a Shiite militia leader who identified himself by his first name, Ali. “We do not need to get any troops from outside, neither the Americans nor the Iranians.’’
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 Iraq crisis and Interfax news agency quoted the 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 Shiite-dominated south, home to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, among the holiest of Shiite 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 a translation by 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-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. troops in 2006.
The militant commanders are said to include Baathist 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 U.S.-led occupation.
Al-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.
After overrunning Mosul and Tikrit, the insurgents poured down the main north-south highway to reach Samarra.
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 Dhuluiya, 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.
A senior militant commander said that insurgents had overrun an air force base in Dhuluiya. It was not clear whether aircraft had been stationed at the base.
The insurgents were also said to have captured an air force college, taking hundreds of prisoners among Shiites but allowing Sunnis to leave.
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 news media.