BASHIQA: As many as half a million Iraqis fled their homes as militants tightened their grip beyond second city Mosul on Wednesday, and vowed an even broader offensive.
In a spectacular blow to the Shiite-led government, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and their allies on Tuesday seized Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province as well as a string of other northern towns. And on Wednesday ISIL declared on Twitter that it was in “complete control” of all routes in and out of Nineveh, and promised it would “not stop this series of blessed invasions”.
Members of the jihadist group also seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped the head of the diplomatic mission along with 24 staff, police said. Elsewhere, they executed 15 security personnel in Kirkuk province and tried to take the oil pipeline hub of Baiji, before withdrawing when troop reinforcements arrived, officials said. The jihadist’s surprise advance poses significant challenges to Baghdad, with a risk consultancy saying they would be bolstered by cash from Mosul’s banks, hardware from military bases and hundreds of men they freed from prison. It also sparked a massive exodus of civilians, with families piling into cars that flooded security checkpoints outside the northern city normally home to two million people.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has responded by asking parliament to declare emergency rule and announcing citizens would be armed to fight them, while the United States warned ISIL threatened the entire region. On Wednesday, gunmen in military uniforms and all-black clothing guarded government buildings and banks in Mosul, said witnesses reached by telephone from Bashiqa, a town to the east. They called over loudspeakers for government employees to go back to work. “I did not open the door of the shop since last Thursday because of the security conditions,” said Abu Ahmed, a 30-year-old shopkeeper.
The International Organisation for Migration said its sources in Mosul estimated the violence leading up to the militants’ takeover “displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city”.The violence “has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians,” the IOM said, adding fighting restricted access to four hospitals. “Some mosques have been converted to clinics to treat casualties,” it said. Witnesses reported that dozens of families were still fleeing, but Abu Ahmed said: “I will remain in Mosul. This is my city in any case, and the city is calm now.” Bassam Mohammed, a 25-year-old student, said he too would stay. “But I am afraid about freedoms, and I am especially afraid that they will impose new laws on us,” he said.
Known for its ruthless tactics and suicide bombers, ISIL is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar al-Assad inside Syria as well as the most powerful militant group in Iraq. The takeover of Mosul prompted the United States to voice deep concern about the “extremely serious” situation and warn that ISIL poses “a threat to the entire region”. ISIL is led by the shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and backed by thousands of Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq, many of them Westerners, and it appears to be surpassing Al-Qaeda as the world’s most dangerous jihadist group.
On Wednesday, the Syrian government said it was ready to help Baghdad in its fight against “terrorism”, while the rebel Free Syrian Army called for support from Arab states for its own battle against ISIL in Syria. The New York-based Eurasia Group consultancy said the jihadist offensive would have limited impact on Iraq’s oil exports, the majority of which are from the mainly Shiite south. “ISIS will use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity,” said Ayham Kamel, its Middle East and north Africa director.
“We do not anticipate a sharp deterioration in the security environment in these more stable (southern) provinces that would materially impact Iraq’s oil export volumes,” he said. Iraq, which boasts among the highest reserves of oil and gas in the world, produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, with exports in February reaching 2.8 million bpd, the highest level in a quarter of a century. A senior government official said “the oil sector is not affected and will not be affected by what is happening, because most of the facilities are in central and south Iraq.” But he warned that would change if the militants were to make a new, successful assault on Baiji, a key hub on the export pipeline from the northern oil fields around Kirkuk to Turkey.
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