Al-Qaeda-inspired militants have seized the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit and were battling government security forces at a northern entrance to the city of Samarra yesterday, as jihadists pushed south towards Baghdad in a lightning offensive.
Samarra lies just 110km north of the Iraqi capital on the main highway from the second city, Mosul, which came under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Monday.
Militants stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul yesterday and kidnapped 48 people, including the head of the diplomatic mission. They entered the consulate "with a bomb threat" and didn't encounter resistance, Turkish channel NTV reported.
Those seized included consul general Ozturk Yilmaz and about 15 Turkish police officers guarding the mission, it said. About 900 men attacked the mission, Turkey's pro- government Yeni Safak newspaper reported.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has convened an emergency meeting with intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and senior military officers.
In Samarra, witnesses said the militants had arrived in trucks mounted with machine guns, while a policeman said his unit was battling them at the northwest entrance to the city.
The city is home to a revered Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, sparking a sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority that left tens of thousands dead.
The ISIL have since overrun all of Nineveh province and its capital Mosul, as well as parts of Kirkuk to its southeast, and Salaheddin to its south. They have taken over local government buildings and raised ISIL's black flag overhead in Tikrit, the Sunni hometown of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the massive security failure in Nineveh was the result of a conspiracy, and that those members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished. He stopped short of assigning direct blame, however, choosing to focus instead on plans to fight back - without detailing what these were.
Security sources said ISIL militants drove into the town of Baiji late on Tuesday in armed vehicles, and torched its courthouse and police station after freeing prisoners.
The militants offered safe passage to some 250 men guarding the oil refinery on the outskirts of Baiji, about 200km south of Mosul, on condition that they leave.
Baiji resident Jasim al-Qaisi said the militants had also asked senior tribal chiefs in Baiji to persuade local police and soldiers not to resist their takeover.
"Yesterday at sunset some gunmen contacted the most prominent tribal sheikhs in Baiji via cellphone and told them 'We are coming to die or control Baiji, so we advise you to ask your sons in the police and army to lay down their weapons and withdraw before evening prayer'."
The Baiji refinery can process 300,000 barrels per day and supplies oil products to most of Iraq's provinces as well as being a major provider of power to Baghdad. A worker there said the morning shift had not been allowed to take over and the night shift was still on duty.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on his country's leaders to come together to face "the serious, mortal" threat. "The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened," he said during a trip to Greece.
Zebari said Baghdad would work with forces from the nearby Kurdish autonomous region to drive the fighters from Mosul.
Even before the lates ISIL assault, US officials had issued a series of warnings that the group was securing a lasting foothold in the region.
"The group looks at Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, and its ability to shift resources and personnel across the border has measurably strengthened its position in both theatres," an American counter-terrorism official said.
ISIL has little to no sway outside the Sunni community in Iraq and Syria, but because of its power base in each country, the US views it increasingly as a regional problem that threatens broader interests.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters, The Washington Post