Iraq was facing a return to its darkest days of civil war last night as al-Qa'ida-linked militants seized a vast area of the country's north in a lightning advance which took them to within striking distance of Baghdad.
nconfirmed reports also said that 15 members of the Iraqi security forces had been beheaded near the northern city of Kirkuk after being kidnapped earlier this week.
A day after snatching control of the northern city of Mosul, fighters were last night within 60 miles of the capital, encountering little resistance from government troops.
On their advance they seized major towns, oil refineries and military bases and embarked on an orgy of kidnappings and executions, causing an exodus of more than half a million people across the north.
The developments reignited the political debate about the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a conflict in which 179 British troops were killed and cost at least £9bn (€11bn).
David Cameron yesterday faced questions in Parliament about his decision to vote in favour of the military intervention. The British Prime Minister warned of more attacks and suggested that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, was not doing enough to prevent "breakdowns" happening across the country.
The crisis is the most serious to hit Iraq since 2004, when a joint Sunni-Shia uprising against coalition forces ended hopes of a quick return to peace in the post-Saddam era.
By yesterday afternoon, the militants were reported to have reached the holy city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. It is feared they will try to reignite Iraq's sectarian civil war by destroying a revered Shia shrine. An al-Qa'ida bomb attack on the shrine in 2006 led to a two-year sectarian conflict that killed an estimated 30,000 Iraqis.
The terrorists' advance, which has been virtually unopposed, has caused panic in Baghdad.
There were reports last night of Shia militias beginning to mobilise in the capital, a sign that the conflict could soon spread beyond the Iraqi government's control. Diplomats in Baghdad's heavily-guarded "green zone" were activating contingency plans for emergency evacuations, one private security contractor said.
Mr Maliki has responded to the crisis by asking his parliament to declare emergency rule, and yesterday, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zubari, called on politicians to bury sectarian differences and face "the serious, mortal" threat.
As he spoke, however, Iraq's American-trained forces appeared to be melting away rather than putting up any kind of defence. The al-Qa'ida offshoot group behind the uprising, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which is known as ISIS, declared that it was in "complete control" of roads in and out of Mosul and the surrounding province. Gunmen were reported to have seized an oil refinery in the neighbouring town of Baiji, and kidnapped the head of the Mosul's Turkish diplomatic mission along with 24 of its staff.
In the city of Tikrit, the birth place of the late Saddam Hussein, the governor was reported to have vanished after militants overran his building.
Sources said that the Iraqi government had ignored warnings to increase security around jails holding insurgents in Mosul, three of which were broken into on Tuesday resulting in more than 1,000 militants being freed. Turkey, whose border is about 100 miles from Mosul, last night called for an emergency Nato meeting to discuss the crisis. As a member of Nato, Turkey can invoke article four of the alliance's treaty which obliges other members to help it address threats to its territorial integrity.
(© The Daily Telegraph, London)