The al-Qaeda breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been seizing territory and key cities across eastern and north-central Iraq in recent days has vowed to march on the capital city of Baghdad, according to various news agencies on Thursday.
ISIL statements translated from a website used by the militant group reportedly state, "the battle is not yet raging, but it will rage in Baghdad and Karbala" soon.
"We will march toward Baghdad because there we have an account to settle," read the comments, which were attributed to ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. The comments, reported by AP and others, could not be independently verified.
On Tuesday, the proven military forces of ISIL took the city of Mosul, the nation's second largest city, where they also reportedly seized large caches of U.S. military weapons held in depots there as well as millions of dollars worth of cash stored in the city's banks. More than 500,000 Iraqis are thought to have fled the fighting, with most heading north to escape additional fighting they fear will come.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to crush the militants, but so far his military has appeared off-guard and undisciplined in the face of the onslaught.
On Wednesday, pressing south, the group captured Tikrit, approximately 100 miles of the capital. And the latest reporting on Thursday reveals ISIL militants have launched attacks on Iraq Army checkpoints just thirty miles north of Baghdad.
North of Mosul, reporting indicates troops from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north have moved into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after Iraqi Army units there abandoned their posts and fled following threats from ISIL commanders.
Known as the peshmerga, the Kurdish troops have said they will defend the city against ISIL attacks, but it is unclear how much of the city they control as previous reporting indicated militia forces had also taken portions of the city and surrounding areas.
According to the Associated Press:
[Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official] said the Kurds moved Thursday to protect an air base and other sites, but denied reports that the whole city was under peshmerga control.
"We decided to move on and control the air base and some positions near it because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents," said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.
Placing the events in Kirkuk in context, Reuters reports:
Kurds have long dreamed of taking Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historical capital, and peshmerga units were already present in an uneasy balance with government forces.
The swift move by their highly organised security forces to seize full control demonstrates how this week's sudden advance by fighters of the Al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has redrawn Iraq's map.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the al-Maliki government had pressed U.S. officials several weeks ago to come to their aid by using U.S. drones or warplanes to carrying out airstrikes against the advancing ISIL militants. Though U.S. officials would not comment specifically on the details, the Times indicates that all calls for direct military assistance have so far been "rebuffed" by the Obama administration.
A statement from State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said there are no plans to send U.S. troops back to the country.