Iraqi forces sought to check the rapid advance of Islamist militants who had seized major cities, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the greatest threat to his government since taking power.
The military backed by air power attacked fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Saddam Hussein’s former hometown of Tikrit, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, state-sponsored Iraqiya television reported today. In Mosul, the airforce struck ISIL positions after they seized the largest city in Iraq’s north earlier this week, Iraqiya said. Al-Sumaria television reported heavy clashes as the army fought for Tikrit backed by air support.
The surge in violence across northern and central Iraq, three years after U.S. troops withdrew, has raised the prospect of a return to sectarian civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. Al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government is struggling to retain control of Sunni-majority regions, and his army units in northern Iraq collapsed in the face of the Islamist advance.
“This can’t be looked at as anything other than a comprehensive failure by the Iraqi army,” Crispin Hawes, managing director of the research firm Teneo Intelligence in London, said in a phone interview. “If the army can’t protect Mosul, how are they going to protect other cities, like Baiji. Moving southward would be the logical thing to do for ISIL.”
There were conflicting reports from Baiji, a town north of Baghdad that’s home to the nation’s largest refinery. Output at the 310,000 barrel a day refinery stopped after militants seized the facility overnight, according to a police statement today. Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi said today in an interview in Vienna that the government was still in control of the refinery.
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