TIKRIT - Militants took control of the Iraqi city of Tikrit and freed hundreds of prisoners on Wednesday, police said, the second provincial capital to fall in two days.
“All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants,” a police colonel said of the Salaheddin provincial capital, which lies roughly half way between Baghdad and Iraq’s second city Mosul which fell on Tuesday. A police brigadier general said that the militants attacked from the north, west and south of the city, and that they were from powerful militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). A police major said the militants had freed some 300 inmates from a prison in the city.
Meanwhile, militants stormed the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Wednesday and kidnapped 48 people including the head of the mission, a Turkish government official said.
“Forty-eight Turks including the consul, staff members, guards and three children were abducted,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the diplomats were taken from the consulate building to the headquarters of the powerful militant group ISIL in Mosul. “All are doing well,” the official said, without elaborating. The kidnappings come as militants spearheaded by ISIL have overrun swathes of Iraq including Mosul, in a spectacular blow to the government.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay and spy chief Hakan Fidan to discuss security measures and how to secure the release of those kidnapped. “All options are on the table including the evacuation of the consulate in Mosul,” the official said.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu cut short a trip in New York, cancelling several meetings at the United Nations to head back to Turkey, a ministry official said.
The Mosul consulate said Tuesday that militants from ISIL, a radical militant group operating in Iraq and Syria, had seized 28 Turkish truck drivers.
Meanwhile, half a million people were estimated Wednesday to have fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul, as militants tightened their grip after overrunning it and a swathe of other territory.
In a spectacular blow to the government, the militants spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Tuesday seized Mosul, its surrounding region of Nineveh and areas of Kirkuk and Salaheddin province. On Wednesday they tried to take Baiji in Salaheddin province but withdrew when the army and police reinforcements arrived, officials said.
Their surprise advance poses significant challenges to Baghdad, with analysts saying they would be bolstered by cash from Mosul’s banks, hardware from military bases and hundreds of men they freed from prison.
Bombings that included a suicide attack on tribal leaders in Baghdad hit Shiite areas of central and southern Iraq Wednesday, killing at least 37 people, officials said. They targeted three Baghdad neighbourhoods as well as Karbala and Basra provinces, south of the capital, the officials said. In the Sadr City area of northern Baghdad, at least 15 people died and 34 were hurt when a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a tent where local Shiite tribal leaders were meeting. A car bomb struck another northern area of Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding at least 24, while a roadside bomb in the capital’s east killed two people and wounded three. North of Karbala city, a car bomb killed four people and wounded 13, while another one hit a market west of the southern port city of Basra, leaving at least three dead and seven wounded.
It also sparked a massive exodus, with families seen piling into cars that crammed security checkpoints outside the northern city, which is normally home to a population of two million people.
Meanwhile, the European Union and the League of Arab states and the EU on Wednesday urged democratic forces in Iraq to unite against militants who are mounting a surprise offensive against the Baghdad government.
“The EU and the LAS call upon all Iraqi democratic forces to work together...to overcome this challenge to the security of Iraq,” a joint statement said after meetings between EU and Arab foreign ministers in Athens.
“In particular, the LAS and the EU call on the government of Iraq and the government of the Kurdistan region to combine their political and military forces in order to restore security to Mosul and Nineveh,” the statement said.
In the mean time, powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who led the once-feared Mahdi Army militia, on Wednesday called for the formation of units to defend religious sites in Iraq.
Sadr said in a written statement that he was ready “to form peace units to defend the holy places” of both Muslims and Christians, in cooperation with the government.
His call came after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the government would arm citizens who volunteer to fight militants, following the fall of Iraq’s second city Mosul and a swathe of other territory to militant