Insurgents in northern Iraq advance toward Baghdad
By nightfall, the extremists had reached the flash-point city of Samarra, just 70 miles outside Baghdad, after having first seized Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, and other cities while pressing southward from Mosul.
The stunning speed with which the rout has unfolded in northern Iraq has raised deep doubts about the capacity of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, and it has also kindled fears about the government's grip on the capital itself.
In a country already fraught with sectarian tension, with parts of western Iraq already in Sunni-extremist hands, the latest gains by insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria prompted ominous cries of alarm from leaders of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.
Baghdad is "definitely vulnerable," said Raoul Alcala, a former U.S. adviser to Iraq's national security council who has spent most of the last decade in Iraq. "There are more troops in Baghdad, but it doesn't mean it isn't porous."
A separate analysis posted on the website of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said insurgents advancing from the north could link up with counterparts on the city's perimeter to pose a real threat to the capital.
For his part, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, insisted for a second straight day that security forces were capable of reversing the extremists' gains. In a televised address to the nation, he pledged that Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, which fell to insurgents early Tuesday, would soon be back in government hands.
"This is just the latest round of fighting against ISIS, and it won't be the last," he said.
In Washington, the State Department said the United States was "expediting" the delivery of critical weaponry to the Maliki government but gave few details. "You can expect that we will provide additional assistance to the Iraqi government to combat the threat," said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman.
A senior U.S. official told the Associated Press that Washington was considering whether to conduct drone missions for Iraq but that no decision had been made.
Among those caught up in the fighting were dozens of Turkish citizens, including some diplomats, who were detained by extremists during attacks in Mosul that included a strike on the Turkish Consulate there.
The conflict in the city, which began Monday evening, has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing, many to the safety of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
If the fighting reaches Baghdad, it is hard to see how a full-scale sectarian war can be avoided.
Among the worrisome signs to emerge Wednesday was a call by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the now largely inactive Mahdi Army militia, to create a new security force to protect Shiite holy sites. Sadr accused the government of standing on the sidelines "shocked and silent" as the country fell between the "jaws of terrorism and extremism."
A Western resident of Baghdad said fears were rising that the capital also could be vulnerable, and some foreign companies evacuated their personnel as a precaution Wednesday.
Even in Sunni-dominated Mosul, it remained unclear how the militants had managed to achieve such a swift victory over government forces. By Wednesday, residents said, the city was festooned with banners declaring the creation of an Islamic emirate, while militants drove around the city once home to some 1.5 million people, announcing that life should continue as normal and that workers should return to their offices.
At a checkpoint seven miles outside Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, a 33-year-old soldier who gave his name as Abu Sultan unzipped a bag to show his uniform, which he said he was not sure he would wear again, after nine years in the military.
He said that when his base south of Mosul came under fire Monday night, officers ordered the men to "leave everything and run away."
"The leadership collapsed," he said. "We left in our military vehicles, just with our AK-47s and handguns."
At a news conference, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, said army commanders had given assurances about their capabilities "only an hour before they got on a plane, leaving their weapons and fleeing."
Oil companies said that so far the fighting had not affected Iraq's 3.3 million barrels a day of oil production.
A senior U.S. adviser on Iraq, Brett McGurk, was on the ground in Baghdad for emergency talks with senior government officials.
Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, described the situation as "very fluid" but said that an oil refinery, Iraq's largest, in the northern Iraqi city of Baiji, remained in government hands.
The man leading the Iraqi insurgents' charge is called a ruthless enigma. A12.