ISIS militants press forward, threaten to seize more Iraqi cities as soldiers bolt
POSTED: Thursday, June 12, 2014 - 7:44am
UPDATED: Thursday, June 12, 2014 - 1:39pm
(CNN) — With Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, firmly under its control, the militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is threatening the takeover of more cities, including the capital, Baghdad.
"Continue your march as the battle is not yet raging," ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani purportedly said in an audio recording posted early Thursday on the group's media website.
"It will rage in Baghdad and Karbala. So be ready for it."
CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the 17-minute-long audio or the time of its recording.
"Don't give up a hand's width of ground you've liberated," the voice says, in apparent encouragement of ISIS fighters.
For its part, the Iraqi government claimed a victory as well.
The city of Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein, was in full control of the military, state-run Iraqiya TV said. Just a day earlier, it appeared largely to have fallen to ISIS fighters.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN on Thursday that the government has "taken a number of steps to push back the terrorists" but that the takeover of Mosul had been a "major security setback."
Speaking in London, he said the Iraqi army there had "collapsed, basically," with commanders fleeing to the north.
"The government has to take a ... serious look at the makeup and the doctrine of the new Iraqi armed forces. You cannot run a country with such commanders."
Asked what assistance Iraq had requested from the United States, Zebari declined to give a clear answer.
But, he said, "Nobody has called ... for the introduction (of) American troops into Iraq."
Zebari said Washington has been cooperative and has a responsibility to be proactive in Iraq's fight against terrorism.
He also said Washington has helped and can help with "a whole range of options," including counterintelligence training and supplying equipment and munitions.
Iraq's parliament failed to hold an emergency session Thursday to vote on declaring a state of emergency as requested by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraqiya TV reported.
A number of lawmakers refused to attend the session to prevent a quorum.
The deadlock may be symptomatic of the fact that both Iraq's military and the government are increasingly divided along sectarian lines.
Open to U.S. strikes
The devastating militant advance, which had been building for some time, is proving an object lesson of much that is wrong in Iraq and the region -- growing sectarian tensions at home and a festering civil war over the border in Syria.
It also shows that the extremists can strike swiftly and effectively against Iraq's American-trained security forces.
It came as little surprise when Iraq indicated a willingness Wednesday for the United States' military to conduct airstrikes against the radical Islamist militants.
Washington has provided $15 billion in training, weapons and equipment to the Iraqi government.
But several U.S. officials said the situation is "extremely urgent" and the U.S. is looking to see what more support it can provide Iraq.
Part of the help involves giving Iraq intelligence it can use to go after ISIS.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the White House was looking at a range of options, but "the current focus of our discussions with the Government of Iraq and our policy considerations is to build the capacity of the Iraqis to successfully confront and deal with the threat."
The country can use all the help it can get.
When the militants attacked the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit, government forces took off, leaving their weapons behind.
There clearly was a breakdown in Iraqi security, a U.S. official said. But Washington believes it was a combination of factors, including the fact that Iraqi forces were already stretched thin by limited success against ISIS in another province, the insurgency-racked Anbar.
For now, ISIS militants have complete control of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city of 1.6 million residents that collapsed swiftly Tuesday. The heavily armed radicals overran police stations, freed more than 1,000 prisoners from the city jail and took over the international airport.
Iraqi forces ran in the face of the onslaught, leaving behind uniforms, weapons and armored vehicles.
Since then, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting there, the International Organization for Migration said Wednesday. The U.N. refugee agency said many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and were in urgent need of shelter, water, food and medical care.
On Wednesday, militants raided the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, capturing 48 people, including diplomats.
"If any harm is done to any of our citizens, it will not go unanswered," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "No one should test Turkey."
The militants also seized parts of Baiji, a small Iraqi town that has the country's largest oil refinery.
For the government to reinforce its troops in Mosul, it needs to drive them through Baiji. If ISIS controls the town, the government's task will be much harder.
However, one silver lining, the American officials said, is that Iraq seems to have a coordinated approach with the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government. It appears that Iraqi forces will team up with Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, to fight ISIS.
Peshmerga forces took up positions in southwest Kirkuk after militants took over several areas north and west of the city, and the Iraqi army withdrew, according to police officials there.
The militants were beaten back once, and the Iraqi government hopes they can be again.
"This is not the end, we are very confident that we will be able to correct the path and to overcome mistakes," the Iraqi Defense Ministry said on its website.
During the U.S. presence in Iraq, militants were responsible for the deaths of many U.S. troops in the western part of the country. With American help, Iraqi tribal militias put ISIS on the defensive.
But when U.S. troops left the country, the extremist militants found new leadership, grew stronger while in Syria and returned to Iraq, making military gains often off the backs of foreign fighters drawn to Syria's conflict.
The depth of control
ISIS, also known by some as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), wants to establish an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across the region.
Earlier this year, it took control of the city of Falluja and parts of Ramadi. Across the border in Syria, it controls towns like Raqqa.
That it is capable of fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on one hand, its fellow radicals on another and the Iraqi government on top of that is an indication of the depth to which ISIS has established itself in the region.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning for Iraq. Terrorist activity and violence, it said, are at "levels unseen since 2007."
CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali, Yousuf Basil, Jim Acosta, Jason Hanna and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.