TIKRIT, Iraq: Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) overran the city of Tikrit Wednesday and closed in on the country’s biggest oil refinery, making further gains in their rapid military advance against government forces.
The threat to the Baiji refinery comes one day after ISIS seized the city of Mosul, advancing their aim of creating a caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, is a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempts to defeat the militants, who have seized territory over the past year following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
It has also set off another humanitarian crisis with an estimated half-million people fleeing Mosul and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in autonomous Kurdistan.
The insurgents now control between 10 and 15 percent of Iraqi territory, excluding Kurdistan, and have sparked fears that they have the capital, Baghdad, in their sights.
Security sources said ISIS fighters drove more than 60 vehicles into Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, occupying the provincial government headquarters and raising their black flag.
“Our forces were caught by surprise; they never expected ISIS would use police and army Humvee vehicles, we mistook them for government forces and it was too late to stop them,” said a police captain who fled from Tikrit to the city of Samarra.
“We are fighting devils and not ordinary people.”
Around 100 ISIS fighters held mass prayers in central Tikrit after taking control.
Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a “conspiracy” and said those who had abandoned their posts would be punished. He also said Iraqis were volunteering in several provinces to join army brigades to fight ISIS.
ISIS said in a statement on Twitter it had taken Mosul as part of a plan “to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates,” referring to the province of Nineveh of which the city is the capital.
Militants executed 10 soldiers and policemen near the town of Riyadh, 60 km southwest of Kirkuk, after setting up a checkpoint, police sources said, while in Tikrit six police officers were executed.
In Mosul, ISIS seized 80 Turkish citizens as hostages, including the country’s consul, as Ankara threatened to retaliate if any of the group were harmed.
NATO ambassadors met in an emergency session in Brussels at Turkey’s request and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden about the developments.
Overnight Tuesday, ISIS militants moved on Baiji, home to Iraq’s largest refinery, which can process 300,000 barrels per day. Security sources said the fighters drove into the town of Baiji in armed vehicles, torching the courthouse and police station before freeing prisoners.
The militants later withdrew into surrounding villages after tribal leaders persuaded them not to take over the energy installations, local officials and residents said.
However, the violence in Iraq prompted fears about the outlook for oil supplies, with futures prices in New York pushed higher toward $110 a barrel.
Washington expressed concern about the deteriorating security situation and pledged “any appropriate assistance” to help the Iraqi government. Iraq’s allies Iran and Syria have also pledged help in fighting the surge by ISIS.
The governor of Mosul blamed Maliki for failing to act upon his warnings about the threat of ISIS.
“The entry of ISIS to Mosul was through the desert from Syria,” Atheel al-Nujaifi said. “There are camps in the desert and we have repeatedly asked the government to bomb these camps instead of luring ISIS into the cities to fight it.”
At a checkpoint on the road between Mosul and Irbil, residents who fled with just their clothes on their backs were stunned by the turn of events and did not know what to make of their city’s new occupants.A 40-year-old man who fled the city with his family said: “We are frightened because we don’t know who they are. They call themselves revolutionaries. They told us not to be scared and that they came to liberate and free us from oppression.”
ISIS has also posted pictures online of militants bulldozing a berm dividing Iraq and Syria, symbolizing its goal of uniting its forces in the two countries.
The jihadists could be seen clearing a road through the berm, before trucks drove through as a militant stood nearby holding the group’s black flag, in photos shared on websites and Twitter.
The first shot was dated June 10 and carried the title of the photo series, “Smashing the Sykes-Picot border,” a reference to the agreement between Britain and France that carved up the Middle East after World War I, with the former taking Iraq and the latter Syria.