The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants extended their gains in northern Iraq on Thursday, seizing three more towns after residents fled the area in fear, witnesses said.
ISIS said on Thursday it had captured 15 towns, Iraq’s biggest dam and a military base since launching an offensive against Kurdish fighters in the north of the country over the weekend.
In a statement on a Twitter site, the group also said it would keep pressing ahead with the offensive that has alarmed the Baghdad government and regional powers. Kurdish officials have said they are still in control of Mosul dam.
In the latest advance, ISIS fighters seized Makhmur and the town of Tilkaif, as well as Al Kwair, witnesses said.
Jihadists who took over large areas of northern Iraq Thursday have forced 100,000 Christians to flee and occupied churches, removing crosses and destroying manuscripts, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said.
“There are 100,000 displaced Christians who have fled with nothing but their clothes, some of them on foot, to reach the Kurdistan region,” he told AFP.
“This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down,” said Sako.
The advance came after the militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on Kurdish forces in a weekend sweep in the north when they captured the town of Sinjar, home to many of Iraq’s Yazidi minority sect, and all 34 villages around Amerli, a small Turkmen town.
ISIS, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria it controls, has put Iraq’s survival as a unified state in jeopardy. The group poses the biggest threat to Iraq’s security since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After ISIS took over Sinjar, Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who follow an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, are now at risk of of being executed because ISIS views them as devil worshippers.
Some of the many thousands of people trapped by ISIS militants on Sinjar mountain in northern Iraq have been rescued in the past 24 hours, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Thursday.
“We’re just receiving the information right now. We’ve just heard that people over the last 24 hours have been extracted and the UN is mobilising resources to ensure that these people are assisted on arrival,” David Swanson said by phone from Iraq.
Almost 200,000 had fled the fighting the past few days in “tragedy of immense proportions”, he said.
Hundreds of people from Iraq’s Yazidi community have fled to Turkey, Turkish officials said on Thursday.
A Turkish foreign ministry official described the flight as a “human tragedy.”
“It is not possible for Turkey to remain indifferent to this. We will fulfil our responsibility,” the official told AFP.
Jihadists who already controlled large swathes on the other side of the border with Syria swept into the main northern city of Mosul on June 10 and went on to overrun much of Iraq’s heartland.
The attack on Sinjar and the town of Zumar gave ISIS control over Mosul’s hinterland and further abolished the border between the Iraqi and Syrian halves of the “caliphate” the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed in June.
Gains by ISIS have raised concerns that militants across the Arab world will follow their cue.
At the weekend militants seized a border town in Lebanon, though they appear to have mostly withdrawn.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called Thursday for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
“Given the seriousness of the situation — the first victims of which are civilians and religious minorities — France is requesting an urgent meeting of the Security Council so the international community can mobilise to counter the terrorist threat in Iraq and support and protect the population at risk,” Fabius said in a statement.
Two car bombs killed nine people in the Kurdish-held Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday, police and medical sources said.
The explosions were near a mosque holding displaced people came after an offensive launched by ISIS fighters which has routed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and caused tens of thousands of people to flee.
Among the victims of the blast, which killed at least six people and wounded 37, were women and children who had been forced from their homes in Amerli, Bashir and Taza, Dr Mohammed Abdallah from Kirkuk hospital said.
In the capital Baghdad, car bombs, including a car suicide bombing, exploded in crowded markets in several districts in the capital Baghdad killing at least 60 people, police said.
In Taji, 20 km (12 miles) north of Baghdad, authorities found the bodies of six people who had been handcuffed and shot in the head and chest execution-style, medical sources said.
ISIS have claimed several Baghdad bombings in the past and believe Shi’ites are infidels who deserve to be killed.
ISIS and Kurdish forces clash near Arbil
Kurdish forces attacked ISIS fighters near the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone, in northern Iraq on Wednesday in a change of tactics supported by the Iraqi central government to try to break the Islamists’ momentum.
The attack 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Arbil came after the militants inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds on Sunday with a rapid advance through three towns, prompting Iraq’s prime minister to order his air force for the first time to back the Kurdish forces.
“We have changed our tactics from being defensive to being offensive. Now we are clashing with ISIS in Makhmur,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of the ministry in charge of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The location of the clashes puts ISIS fighters closer than they have ever been to the Kurdish semi-autonomous region since they swept through northern Iraq almost unopposed in June.
Shortly after that lightning advance, thousands Iraqi soldiers fled. Kurdish fighters, who boast of their battles against Saddam Hussein’s forces, stepped in as did other militias.
But ISIS gunmen’s defeat of the peshmerga, whose name means “those who confront death”, has called into question their reputation as fearsome warriors.
Maliki has ordered his air force to help the Kurds in their fight against ISIS, which seized an array of weapons including tanks and anti-aircraft guns from the Iraqi soldiers who fled in June.
Maliki was at odds with the Kurds over oil, budgets and land, but both sides put their differences aside, alarmed by ISIS’s latest gains – a fifth oilfield and three more towns in the north. The group also reached Iraq’s biggest dam.
Yawar confirmed the Kurds had re-established military cooperation with Baghdad.
“The peshmerga ministry sent a message to the Iraqi defence ministry requesting the convening of an urgent meeting on military cooperation. The joint committees have been reactivated,” Yawar said by telephone.
On Wednesday, 60 people were killed by an Iraqi government air strike on a Sharia court set up by ISIS militants in a juvenile prison in Mosul, the office of Maliki’s military spokesman said.
ISIS judge who ran the court, which routinely orders beheadings, was among those killed in the northern Iraqi city, the spokesman said.
(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, AFP)