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Wednesday 21 February 2018

Militants vow to march on Baghdad

Iraqi men chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group outside the main army recruiting centre in Baghdad as they volunteer for military service (AP)
Iraqi men chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group outside the main army recruiting centre in Baghdad as they volunteer for military service (AP)
Iraqi security forces head to Baghdad on the main road between the city and Mosul (AP)
Iraqi police stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad (AP)
Iraqi refugees from Mosul set up a tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles north of Baghdad (AP)

The al Qaida-inspired group that led the charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week has vowed to march on to Baghdad.

The group's actions have raised fears about the Shiite-led government's ability to slow the assault following the insurgents' gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) yesterday took Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by US forces.

That seizure followed the capture of much of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the previous day.

The group and its allies among local tribesmen also hold the city of Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

A spokesman for ISIL said the group has old scores to settle with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. The Iraqi leader, a Shiite, is trying to hold on to power after indecisive elections in April.

Mr al-Maliki has called on parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him the "necessary powers" to run the country - something legal experts said could include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

The ISIL spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, also threatened that the group's fighters will take the southern Iraqi Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

"March toward Baghdad because there we have an account to settle," he urged followers in a recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group.

Al-Adnani also said in the recording that one of ISIL's top military commanders, Adnan Ismail Najm, better known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari, was killed in the recent battles in Iraq.

Al-Adnani said Najm worked closely with the former leader of al Qaida in Iraq, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US troops in 2006.

Najm was later detained and spent years in prison before he was set free two years ago and prepared and commanded the operations that led to the latest incursions by the group in northern and central Iraq.

ISIL aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It has been able to push deep into parts of the Iraqi Sunni heartland once controlled by US forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House has said that the United States was "deeply concerned" about ISIL's continued aggression.

There were no reliable estimates of casualties or the number of insurgents involved, though several hundred gunmen were involved in the Tikrit fight, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra. An even larger number of militants likely would have been needed to secure Mosul, a much bigger city.

Baghdad does not appear to be in imminent danger from a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital in recent months.

So far, ISIL fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by the Shiite-led government over allegations of discrimination and mistreatment. The militants also would likely meet far stronger resistance, not only from government forces but by Shiite militias, if they tried to advance on the capital.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighbouring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long border with Syria, where ISIL is also active.

Mosul's fall was a heavy defeat for Mr al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in parliamentary elections in April - the first since the US military withdrawal in 2011 - but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

In addition to being Saddam Hussein's home town, Tikrit was a power base of his once-powerful Baath Party. The former dictator was captured by US forces while hiding in a hole in the area and he is buried south of the town in a tomb draped with the Saddam-era Iraqi flag.

The Iraqi military has also abandoned some posts in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk that are now being held by the Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga.

Brig Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official, said the Kurds moved to protect an air base and other sites, but denied reports that the whole city was under peshmerga control.

"We decided to move on and control the air base and some positions near it because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents," he said.

Also, militants have attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in the town of Tarmiyah, 31 miles north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials.

Politicians tried to hold a session to approve plans to declare a state of emergency but too few showed up and they were unable to vote.

Meanwhile, hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting centre in Baghdad after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, offered his country's support to Iraq in its "fight against terrorism" during a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart, Iranian state TV reported.

Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has built close ties with Iraq's post-war government, said it was halting flights to Baghdad a day earlier because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has blasted ISIL as "barbaric" and said that his country's highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighbouring Iraq.

Press Association

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