Iraq close to coming apart
The discredited Iraqi army scrambled to recover after the humiliating rout of the last three days, dispatching elite troops to confront the militants in the central town of Samarra and claiming that it had recaptured Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whose regime was toppled by U.S. troops sweeping north from Kuwait in 2003.
But there was no sign that the militant push was being reversed. With the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now sweeping south toward Baghdad - reports varied on how close - the achievements of America's eight-year war in Iraq were rapidly being undone. Iraq now seems to be inexorably if unintentionally breaking apart, into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish enclaves that amount to the de facto partition of the country.
As the scale of the threat to the collapsing Iraqi state became clear, Obama administration officials met to discuss options, including possible air strikes. An Iraqi official close to the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the United States had committed to carrying out air strikes, but U.S. officials said no decision had been reached.
The attempted government counteroffensive appeared to have only slowed the pace of the advance of the extremist army, which had headed south toward Baghdad after capturing the northern city of Mosul this week. More than 90,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted rather than confront the militants, according to the official close to Maliki's office who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
The official said that the extent of the militants' control of Tikrit had been exaggerated and that it was now back in government hands. He denied a report in the Wall Street Journal that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had helped the security forces.
But the official's claim could not be confirmed. A chilling video posted on YouTube showed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers captured at the former Speicher U.S. military base being herded by the militants to an uncertain fate, amid fears that they had been executed.
Even as the security forces attempted to regroup elsewhere, the government lost control of more territory in the northeast of the country, to Kurdish forces who took advantage of the chaos to assert control, unopposed, of the city of Kirkuk.
The government of the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan has long coveted Kirkuk, a city of about 1.2 million that sits atop a large if depleted reservoir of oil, as the capital of an independent Kurdish state. Successive Baghdad governments have pushed back against those aspirations, and the seizure of Kirkuk further exposed the helplessness of the central authorities.
Meanwhile in Mosul, one of Iraq's most important cities, ISIS set about asserting its control, issuing an 11-point charter spelling out the creation of an Islamic state along with new laws, punishments, and incentives. Alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs are outlawed, citizens will henceforth be required to pray five times a day, thieves will have their hands amputated, and women must stay indoors except in cases of emergency, the charter said.
It also struck a conciliatory note, telling citizens that those who embraced its vision would be forgiven.
For many in the mostly Sunni city, the ouster of the hated national security forces was welcome, offering a sign of just how much the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has alienated the Sunni population in the eight years since Maliki came to power.
Meanwhile, in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in towns and cities farther south, young men flocked to recruitment centers to volunteer to fight against the extremists, underscoring the sharpening sectarian divide that risks engulfing the entire country in war.
Shiite militias also were gearing up for a fight.
"We announce our readiness to defend Iraq and its holy shrines," said the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl Al-Haq in a statement, pledging "revenge for the blood of the martyrs" killed by ISIS.
The statement came as ISIS issued a pledge to avenge grievances, vowing to march on Baghdad "to settle scores" and also the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala farther south.
In yet another indication of Maliki's growing powerlessness, parliamentarians failed to show up in sufficient numbers to secure a quorum for his request for the passage of a law declaring a state of emergency.