Militant Islamists seized more territory in northern Iraq on Wednesday, moving south toward Baghdad as government forces scrambled to regroup after losing control of the country\’s second-largest city.
Islamist militants in Iraq moved closer to Baghdad, after seizing the city of Tikrit which lies just 95 miles to the north of the capital.
Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein, lies 150km (95 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.
The insurgents are from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
ISIS, which is also known as ISIL, is an offshoot of al-Qaeda.
"All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants," a police colonel told the AFP news agency. A police brigadier general told AFP that fighters attacked from the north, west and south of the city, and that they were from ISIL.
A police major told the agency that the militants had freed about 300 inmates from a prison in the city, which is the capital of Salaheddin province.
Iraqi state television reported that special forces soldiers were fighting to regain control of city. Sources claimed the Iraqi soldiers had cleared the city of ISIL, but these reports remain unverified.
Meanwhile, sources said the nearby city of Kirkuk, home to Iraq\’s biggest oil refinery, was also being attacked by ISIL. Fighters had guaranteed the safety of Iraqi soldiers if they gave up their weapons.
In Samarra, south of Tikrit, witnesses told AFP that fighters had arrived in trucks mounted with machineguns, while a policeman said his unit was involved in fighting at the northwest entrance the city.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki vowed to fight back against the jihadists and punish those in the security forces who fled offering little or no resistance.
Earlier Maliki vowed to fight back against the militants. He has asked parliament to declare a state of emergency.
In a live TV address, he said a "conspiracy" had taken place in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.
Maliki said he did not want to apportion blame for who had ordered the security personnel "to retreat and cause chaos".
He added: "Those who deserted and did not carry out their jobs properly should be punished."
Maliki told the people of Nineveh: "Do not give in. We are with you, the state is with you, the army is with you. Even if the battle is a long one, we will not let you down."
The fighting comes after half a million people are reported to have fled Mosul since the city was taken over by ISIL on Tuesday.
The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration said the Mosul takeover had "displaced over 500,000 people in and around the city", a quarter of the city\’s population.
The Turkish government also said that ISIL had stormed its consulate in Mosul, taking staff and the consul captive.
With security in Iraq rapidly deteriorating, the United States on Wednesday pledged "any appropriate assistance\’" to help the Iraqi government fend off a rapid military advance by Islamist militants.
The State Department has had no confirmation of news reports that militants were heading for Baghdad, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a news briefing. "It is a very fluid situation on the ground," she added. "We are of course very concerned about the deteriorating situation."
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was "no question" of British troops returning to Iraq, five years after they ended combat operations there.
He said that the Iraqi government had "considerable resources" and it was up to its armed forces to respond.
Separately, at least 21 people were killed and 45 hurt by a suicide bomber at a Shia meeting in Baghdad, police said.
Iraq is dealing with its worst violence since 2008, with the United Nations reporting that approximately 4,500 people have been killed this year. More than 900 of the deaths occurred last month.
Source – Agencies