The internal strife and civil war spurred by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is escalating rapidly.
The Sunni militia that has staked a claim to areas on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border is expanding its military campaign against the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as it moved southward on Wednesday following a decisive victory in the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday.
Known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the powerful military force has proven capable of overwhelming the Iraqi Army as it has gained ground in numerous provinces in the west and north-central regions. Iraq's parliament declared a national state of emergency at the request of al-Maliki on Tuesday. Government officials in the country are now calling for a large-scale and immediate military response to the ISIL threat.
Update (12:11 PM EST): City of Tikrit falls; Turkish diplomatic mission kidnapped
The Associated Press is reporting that ISIL militants have now taken control of the city of Tikrit, just 100 miles north of Baghdad, after government "soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents."
Meanwhile, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily confirms that 48 Turkish citizens and members of the nation's diplomatic envoy, including the Consul General, have been taken hostage by the ISIL after their mission was overrun in Mosul.
The New York Times provided this map to show the regions where ISIL militants have been able to gain territory over the last several days in addition to areas they've held for months:
According to International Organization for Migration, approximately 500,000 Iraqis have fled the city of Mosul in order to escape the expected battle between government forces and the ISIL, who follow an extremist Islamic philosophy.
On Wednesday, the insurgents claimed to have taken control of the entire province of Nineveh, Agence France-Presse reported, and there were reports of militants executing government soldiers in the Kirkuk region.
Speaking from Athens, Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshya Zebari called for immediate military retaliation to reclaim Mosul and other areas, saying, “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened.”
Additional reporting revealed that ISIL forces moved south overnight to the town of Baiji, home to a key oil refinery and power plant that supplies electricity to key areas in the south, including Baghdad and other large cities.
The move south towards Baiji has significant strategic implications. As Reuters reports:
The militants offered safe passage to some 250 men guarding the refinery on the outskirts of Baiji, about 200 kilometres south of Mosul, on condition they leave.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on his country's leaders to come together to face "the serious, mortal" threat [...] 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.
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 (Tuesday) evening prayer'."
ISIL forces have been steadily gaining ground in Iraq in recent months, enabled in certain ways by the conditions created by the civil war that continues to rage in Syria which has allowed for a steady flow of fighters and weapons across the increasingly unregulated border.
As many experts and historians have pointed out, the current political instability and sectarian violence—which many now regard as an open civil war in the country—was unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Though in part justified by the Bush administration on the unsubstantiated charges that Al-Qaeda received support and backing from the government of Saddam Hussein, the sad and deadly irony now evident in Iraq shows that it was the U.S. military occupation and widespread destruction of Iraqi society that has opened the door to the extremist militias that now control key portions of the country.
As Middle East historian Juan Cole writes at his Informed Comment website on Wednesday:
It is an indictment of the George W. Bush administration, which falsely said it was going into Iraq because of a connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. There was none. Ironically, by invading, occupying, weakening and looting Iraq, Bush and Cheney brought al-Qaeda into the country and so weakened it as to allow it actually to take and hold territory in our own time. They put nothing in place of the system they tore down. They destroyed the socialist economy without succeeding in building private firms or commerce. They put in place an electoral system that emphasizes religious and ethnic divisions. They helped provoke a civil war in 2006-2007, and took credit for its subsiding in 2007-2008, attributing it to a troop escalation of 30,000 men (not very plausible). In fact, the Shiite militias won the civil war on the ground, turning Baghdad into a largely Shiite city and expelling many Sunnis to places like Mosul.