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Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led this week’s charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following lightning gains.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces ever since.

As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, but there is little prospect of any action by the body.

President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the United States, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide. Senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in Iraq.

In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.

The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”

“People, you have tried secular regimes … This is now the era of the Islamic State,” it proclaimed.

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

With its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s 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 Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the ISIL assault is being helped by sympathetic Sunnis, including former army officers and other remnants of Saddam’s regime, which fell after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Skirmishes continued in several areas overnight and into Thursday. Two communities near Tikirt – the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.

They said ISIL fighters managed to take control of two big weapons depots holding some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were quickly sent to Syria in order to help the group’s comrades there, they said.

Officers from the army that was disbanded after the invasion are helping coordinate the fight with the Islamic State, they said. Other armed groups involved in the attacks include the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which is led by the top fugitive from Saddam’s regime, Izzat al-Douri, and another known as the Iraqi Resistance Group, they said.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge it publicly.

After Mosul fell Tuesday, al-Maliki asked parliament to give him the “necessary powers” to run the country under a state of emergency – something legal experts said would include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

After parliament failed to reach a quorum, Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, played down the apparent lack of support for the vote, saying al-Maliki already has enough power to take the necessary action.

“The problem is that soldiers are not resisting the armed groups,” he said. “No soldier is ready to fire a shot against the gunmen.”

The stunning advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Zamili, a member in the parliament’s defense and security committee, said armed groups such as Naqshabandi army, and former Baathists and army officers are fighting along with the ISIL.

Gunmen in Mosul continued to hold hostages at the Turkish consulate there.

Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, according to an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. The captives include 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, including the general consul and 31 truck drivers, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.

In addition to Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies among local tribesmen also hold Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

Online video showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iranian 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.

Obama did not specify what type of assistance the U.S. was willing to provide but said he had not ruled out any options.

“We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter,” Obama said during an Oval Office meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has built close ties with Iraq’s postwar government, has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led this week’s charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following lightning gains.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces ever since.

As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, but there is little prospect of any action by the body.

President Barack Obama said Iraq will need more help from the United States, but he did not specify what it would be willing to provide. Senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name said Washington is considering whether to conduct drone missions in Iraq.

In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.

The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”

“People, you have tried secular regimes … This is now the era of the Islamic State,” it proclaimed.

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

With its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s 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 Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the ISIL assault is being helped by sympathetic Sunnis, including former army officers and other remnants of Saddam’s regime, which fell after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Skirmishes continued in several areas overnight and into Thursday. Two communities near Tikirt – the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.

They said ISIL fighters managed to take control of two big weapons depots holding some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were quickly sent to Syria in order to help the group’s comrades there, they said.

Officers from the army that was disbanded after the invasion are helping coordinate the fight with the Islamic State, they said. Other armed groups involved in the attacks include the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which is led by the top fugitive from Saddam’s regime, Izzat al-Douri, and another known as the Iraqi Resistance Group, they said.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge it publicly.

After Mosul fell Tuesday, al-Maliki asked parliament to give him the “necessary powers” to run the country under a state of emergency – something legal experts said would include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

After parliament failed to reach a quorum, Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, played down the apparent lack of support for the vote, saying al-Maliki already has enough power to take the necessary action.

“The problem is that soldiers are not resisting the armed groups,” he said. “No soldier is ready to fire a shot against the gunmen.”

The stunning advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Zamili, a member in the parliament’s defense and security committee, said armed groups such as Naqshabandi army, and former Baathists and army officers are fighting along with the ISIL.

Gunmen in Mosul continued to hold hostages at the Turkish consulate there.

Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, according to an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. The captives include 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, including the general consul and 31 truck drivers, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.

In addition to Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies among local tribesmen also hold Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

Online video showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iranian 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.

Obama did not specify what type of assistance the U.S. was willing to provide but said he had not ruled out any options.

“We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter,” Obama said during an Oval Office meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has built close ties with Iraq’s postwar government, has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led this week’s charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following lightning gains.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces ever since.

In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so.

As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the U.N. Security Council scheduled consultations on the crisis.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.

The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”

“People, you have tried secular regimes … This is now the era of the Islamic State,” it proclaimed.

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

With its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s 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 Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the ISIL assault is being helped by sympathetic Sunnis, including former army officers and other remnants of Saddam’s regime, which fell after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Skirmishes continued in several areas overnight and into Thursday. Two communities near Tikirt – the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.

They said ISIL fighters managed to take control of two big weapons depots holding some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were quickly sent to Syria in order to help the group’s comrades there, they said.

Officers from the army that was disbanded after the invasion are helping coordinate the fight with the Islamic State, they said. Other armed groups involved in the attacks include the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which is led by the top fugitive from Saddam’s regime, Izzat al-Douri, and another known as the Iraqi Resistance Group, they said.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge it publicly.

After Mosul fell Tuesday, al-Maliki asked parliament to give him the “necessary powers” to run the country under a state of emergency – something legal experts said would include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

After parliament failed to reach a quorum, Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, played down the apparent lack of support for the vote, saying al-Maliki already has enough power to take the necessary action.

“The problem is that soldiers are not resisting the armed groups,” he said. “No soldier is ready to fire a shot against the gunmen.”

The stunning advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Zamili, a member in the parliament’s defense and security committee, said armed groups such as Naqshabandi army, and former Baathists and army officers are fighting along with the ISIL.

Gunmen in Mosul continued to hold hostages at the Turkish consulate there.

Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, according to an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. The captives include 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, including the general consul and 31 truck drivers, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.

In addition to Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies among local tribesmen also hold Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

Online video showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iranian 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 postwar government, has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led this week’s charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following lightning gains.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces ever since.

In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so.

As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the U.N. Security Council scheduled consultations on the crisis.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.

The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”

“People, you have tried secular regimes … This is now the era of the Islamic State,” it proclaimed.

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

With its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s 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 Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the ISIL assault is being helped by sympathetic Sunnis, including former army officers and other remnants of Saddam’s regime, which fell after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Skirmishes continued in several areas overnight and into Thursday. Two communities near Tikirt – the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.

They said ISIL fighters managed to take control of two big weapons depots holding some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were quickly sent to Syria in order to help the group’s comrades there, they said.

Officers from the army that was disbanded after the invasion are helping coordinate the fight with the Islamic State, they said. Other armed groups involved in the attacks include the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which is led by the top fugitive from Saddam’s regime, Izzat al-Douri, and another known as the Iraqi Resistance Group, they said.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge it publicly.

After Mosul fell Tuesday, al-Maliki asked parliament to give him the “necessary powers” to run the country under a state of emergency – something legal experts said would include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

After parliament failed to reach a quorum, Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, played down the apparent lack of support for the vote, saying al-Maliki already has enough power to take the necessary action.

“The problem is that soldiers are not resisting the armed groups,” he said. “No soldier is ready to fire a shot against the gunmen.”

The stunning advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Zamili, a member in the parliament’s defense and security committee, said armed groups such as Naqshabandi army, and former Baathists and army officers are fighting along with the ISIL.

Gunmen in Mosul continued to hold hostages at the Turkish consulate there.

Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, according to an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. The captives include 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, including the general consul and 31 truck drivers, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.

In addition to Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies among local tribesmen also hold Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

Online video showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iranian 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 postwar government, has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led this week’s charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following lightning gains.

Signs emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant is backed in its campaign by former military officers and other members of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime – including a force led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the late leader’s former deputy who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces ever since.

In the north, Kurdish security forces took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, a senior official with the Kurdish forces said. He denied they had taken over the oil-rich city.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament this week to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers Thursday failed to assemble a quorum to do so.

As world leaders expressed alarm over the destabilization of large parts of the country by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the U.N. Security Council scheduled consultations on the crisis.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.

The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”

“People, you have tried secular regimes … This is now the era of the Islamic State,” it proclaimed.

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

With its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State fighters have stuck to the Sunni heartland and former Sunni insurgent strongholds where people are already alienated by al-Maliki’s 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 Baghdad.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the ISIL assault is being helped by sympathetic Sunnis, including former army officers and other remnants of Saddam’s regime, which fell after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Skirmishes continued in several areas overnight and into Thursday. Two communities near Tikirt – the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine – remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.

They said ISIL fighters managed to take control of two big weapons depots holding some 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars. A quarter of the stockpiles were quickly sent to Syria in order to help the group’s comrades there, they said.

Officers from the army that was disbanded after the invasion are helping coordinate the fight with the Islamic State, they said. Other armed groups involved in the attacks include the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which is led by the top fugitive from Saddam’s regime, Izzat al-Douri, and another known as the Iraqi Resistance Group, they said.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge it publicly.

After Mosul fell Tuesday, al-Maliki asked parliament to give him the “necessary powers” to run the country under a state of emergency – something legal experts said would include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

After parliament failed to reach a quorum, Hakim al-Zamili, a lawmaker affiliated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, played down the apparent lack of support for the vote, saying al-Maliki already has enough power to take the necessary action.

“The problem is that soldiers are not resisting the armed groups,” he said. “No soldier is ready to fire a shot against the gunmen.”

The stunning advances by the Sunni militants are a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Al-Zamili, a member in the parliament’s defense and security committee, said armed groups such as Naqshabandi army, and former Baathists and army officers are fighting along with the ISIL.

Gunmen in Mosul continued to hold hostages at the Turkish consulate there.

Turkish officials are talking to militants in Mosul about freeing 80 people being held there, according to an official in the Turkish prime minister’s office. The captives include 49 people who were seized in the Turkish consulate Wednesday, including the general consul and 31 truck drivers, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.

In addition to Mosul and Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies among local tribesmen also hold Fallujah and other pockets of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.

Online video showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

Iranian 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 postwar government, has halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Paris, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nasser Karimi in Tehran and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.

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.

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.

The capital, with its large Shiite population, would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State 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.

In contrast, online video posted Thursday showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the militant takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into the capital at the heart of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pick-up trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint Thursday in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

After Mosul’s fall, al-Maliki asked 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.

Lawmakers tried to hold a session to approve the measure Thursday, but too few showed up and they were unable to reach quorum to vote.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday 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 postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.

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.

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.

The capital, with its large Shiite population, would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State 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.

In contrast, online video posted Thursday showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the militant takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into the capital at the heart of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pick-up trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint Thursday in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

After Mosul’s fall, al-Maliki asked 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.

Lawmakers tried to hold a session to approve the measure Thursday, but too few showed up and they were unable to reach quorum to vote.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday 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 postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.

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.

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.

The capital, with its large Shiite population, would be a far harder target for the militants. So far, Islamic State 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.

In contrast, online video posted Thursday showed some Tikrit residents celebrating the militant takeover. As Islamic State fighters drove through largely empty streets in a captured military Humvee and a pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, what appeared to be a few dozen people shouted “God is great,” and celebratory gunfire could be heard. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into the capital at the heart of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.

“We will march toward Baghdad because we have an account to settle there,” he said in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group’s autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State. Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.

Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over an air base and other posts abandoned by the Iraqi military in the ethnically mixed flashpoint city of Kirkuk, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.

“We decided to move … because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

A force of 20 pick-up trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours late Wednesday night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.

Militants also attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint Thursday in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

After Mosul’s fall, al-Maliki asked 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.

Lawmakers tried to hold a session to approve the measure Thursday, but too few showed up and they were unable to reach quorum to vote.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday 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 postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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.

Mosul, the capital of Ninevah province, and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led the charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.

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.

The Iraqi military 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 told the Associated Press.

He said the Kurds moved Thursday 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,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

Also Thursday, militants attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

A spokesman for the Islamic State 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 onto power after indecisive elections in April.

Al-Maliki has asked 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. Lawmakers are expected to consider that request later today.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

The Islamic State’s 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.

“We will march toward Baghdad because there we have an account to settle,” he urged followers in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Al-Adnani also said that one of his group’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 U.S. 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.

The militants are trying to expand into other areas too.

Hikmat, the Kurdish official, said some 20 pickups carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar. He said they were forced to retreat after four hours of clashes that began late Wednesday and left nine militants dead and four peshmerga members wounded.

Sinjar is 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad in Ninevah province, outside of the semiautonomous Kurdish area, but is under Kurdish control.

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 postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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, Islamic State 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 neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led the charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit on Wednesday as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. troops.

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.

The Iraqi military 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 told the Associated Press.

He said the Kurds moved Thursday 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,” said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.

Also Thursday, militants attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Baghdad, killing five troops and wounding nine, said officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

A spokesman for the Islamic State 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 onto power after indecisive elections in April.

Al-Maliki has asked 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. Lawmakers are expected to consider that request later today.

Hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.

The Islamic State’s 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.

“We will march toward Baghdad because there we have an account to settle,” he urged followers in an audio recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

Al-Adnani also said that one of his group’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 U.S. 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.

The militants are trying to expand into other areas too.

Hikmat, the Kurdish official, said some 20 pickups carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar. He said they were forced to retreat after four hours of clashes that began late Wednesday and left nine militants dead and four peshmerga members wounded.

Sinjar is 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad in Ninevah province, outside of the semiautonomous Kurdish area, but is under Kurdish control.

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 postwar government, a day earlier said it was halting flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and has intensified security measures along its borders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday blasted the Islamic State as “barbaric” and said that his country’s highest security body will hold an immediate meeting to review the developments in neighboring Iraq.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” about the Islamic State’s continued aggression.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern Thursday about the group’s advances, noting its history of violence and other abuses. The rights group also called on Baghdad to deal with the crisis “without the brutal tactics for which civilians elsewhere in the country have long been paying a heavy price,” deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry said.

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, Islamic State 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 neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — The al-Qaida-inspired group that led the charge in capturing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government’s ability to slow the assault following the insurgents’ lightning gains.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Wednesday took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. 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 the Islamic State 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 onto power after indecisive elections in April.

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. Lawmakers are expected to consider that request later today.

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 was have an account to settle,” he urged followers in a recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The statement could not be independently verified.

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 U.S. 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.

The Islamic State 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 U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The White House said Wednesday 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 neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

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

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

Iraq Sunni militant group vows to march on Baghdad

KDWN

BAGHDAD (AP) — An al-Qaida-inspired group has vowed to march on to Baghdad after seizing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq.

A spokesman for the Islamic State of Iran and the Levant says the group has old scores to settle with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

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

The statement, which could not be independently verified, came in an audio posting Thursday on militant websites commonly used by the group.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Al-Qaida-inspired militants have pushed deeper into Iraq’s Sunni heartland, conquering cities and towns that had largely been calm before the Americans withdrew less than three years ago and spreading fear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will be unable to stop the Islamic extremists as they press closer to Baghdad.

Fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Wednesday took Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.

Only a day earlier, they seized control of much of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, sending an estimated half a million people fleeing from their homes. As in Tikrit, the Sunni militants were able to move in after police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.

The group, which has seized wide swaths of territory, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The capture of Mosul – along with the fall of Tikrit and the militants’ earlier seizure of the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the capital of western Anbar province – have undone hard-fought gains against insurgents in the years following the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces.

The White House said the security situation has deteriorated over the past 24 hours and 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 in Tikrit and more were fighting on the outskirts, 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.

The militants gained entry to the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held captive 48 people, including diplomats, police, consulate employees and three children, according to an official in the office of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish officials believe the hostages are safe, he said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters on the sensitive issue.

The White House said in a statement that Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Erdogan and called for the safe and immediate return of the Turkish personnel and family members. Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Erdogan convened an emergency Cabinet meeting.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the abductions and the seizure of Iraqi territory by the militants, urging “the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge.”

“Terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path towards democracy in Iraq,” Ban said.

While the militants have advanced southward, Baghdad did 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 neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Mosul’s fall was a heavy defeat for al-Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections – the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 – but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.

Without assigning direct blame, al-Maliki said a “conspiracy” led to the massive security failure that allowed militants to capture Mosul, and warned that members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished.

“We are working to solve the situation,” al-Maliki said. “We are regrouping the armed forces that are in charge of clearing Ninevah from those terrorists.”

Al-Maliki has pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency over the Mosul attack – a decision that could come as early as Thursday.

Iranian airlines cancelled all flights between Tehran and Baghdad due to security concerns, and the Islamic Republic has intensified security measures along its borders, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.

Shiite powerhouse Iran has strong ties with Iraq’s government. Some 17,000 Iranian pilgrims are in Iraq at any given time, the agency quoted Saeed Ohadi, the director of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, as saying.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned that the instability was rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue requiring a coordinated response by Iraq’s leaders to halt ISIL’s advance and wrest territory away from insurgents.

Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama that ISIL poses a “different kind of threat” to American interests than core al-Qaida, which had repeatedly and publicly vowed to attack U.S. soil. Still, he said the U.S. was watching the threat from ISIL “very carefully” because the group has proven itself to be violent and willing to consider attacking U.S. interests and American allies.

Tikrit residents said the militant group overran several police stations in the Sunni-dominated city. Two Iraqi security officials confirmed that the city, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad and the capital of Salahuddin province, was under ISIL’s control and that the provincial governor was missing.

The major oil refinery in Beiji, located between Mosul and Tikrit, remained in government control, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to reporters. There were clashes and gunmen tried to take the town but were repelled in a rare success for Iraqi government forces protecting an important facility, the officials said.

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

The International Organization for Migration estimated that 500,000 people fled the Mosul area, with some seeking safety in the Ninevah countryside or the nearby semiautonomous Kurdish region. Getting into the latter has grown trickier, however, with migrants without family members already in the enclave needing to secure permission from Kurdish authorities, according to the IOM.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Mosul’s fall must bring the country’s leaders together to deal with the “serious, mortal threat” facing Iraq.

“We can push back on the terrorists … and there would be a closer cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together and try to flush out these foreign fighters,” he said on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in Athens.

Mosul residents said gunmen went around knocking on doors there Wednesday, reassuring people they would not be harmed. The situation appeared calm but tense, they said.

Violence raged elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday.

Police and hospital officials said a suicide bomber struck inside a tent where tribesmen were meeting to solve a dispute in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, killing 31 and wounding 46.

Car bombs in Shiite areas elsewhere claimed another 17 and maimed dozens, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Car bombs and suicide attackers are favorite tools of the ISIL.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press Writers Elena Becatoros in Athens, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Boston, Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Josh Lederman in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck