Iraq insurgents take Saddam's home town in lightning advance
Sunni rebels from an al Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country, making further gains in their rapid military advance against the Shi'ite-led government.
The threat to the Baiji refinery comes after militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the northern city of Mosul, advancing their aim of creating a Sunni Caliphate straddling the border between Iraq and Syria.
The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second biggest city, is a blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attempts to defeat the militants, who have seized territory in Iraq over the past year following the withdrawal of US forces.
About 500,000 Iraqis have fled Mosul, home to 2 million people, and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
The insurgents are now in control of between 10 and 15 pct of Iraqi territory, excluding Kurdistan, and have led many Iraqis to fear they have the capital, Baghdad, in their sights.
Security sources said ISIL militants drove more than 60 vehicles into Tikrit, the home town of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, occupying the provincial government headquarters and raising the black flag of ISIL.
"Our forces were caught by surprise, they never expected ISIL would use police and army Humvee vehicles, we mistook them for government forces and it was too late to stop them," said a police captain who fled from Tikrit to Samarra.
"We are fighting devils and not ordinary people".
Around 100 ISIL fighters held mass prayers in central Tikrit after taking control.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq's leaders must unite to face a "mortal" threat. "There has to be a quick response to what has happened," he said during a trip to Greece.
Zebari said Baghdad would work with forces from Kurdistan in the north to drive the fighters out of Mosul after Iraqi security forces there fled on Tuesday.
Maliki described the fall of Mosul as a "conspiracy" and said those who had abandoned their posts would be punished. He also said Iraqis were volunteering in several provinces to join army brigades to fight ISIL.
In a show of the militants' reach, a car bombing in a crowded market in the town of Safwan, which sits on Iraq's southernmost border with Kuwait, killed five people.
In a statement on its Twitter account, ISIL said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan "to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates", referring to the province of Nineveh of which the city is the capital.
Militants executed 10 soldiers and policemen today near the town of Riyadh, 60 km (40 miles) southwest of Kirkuk, after setting up a checkpoint on the road, police sources said, while in Tikrit six police officers were executed.
In Mosul, 80 Turkish citizens were being held hostage by the militants, the foreign ministry in Ankara said. Turkey threatened to retaliate if any of the group, which included special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, were harmed.
Ambassadors of the NATO defence alliance held an emergency meeting in Brussels at Turkey's request and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan held talks with US Vice President Joe Biden about the developments.
ISIL, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, broke with al Qaeda's international leader, Osama bin Laden's former lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, and has clashed with al Qaeda fighters in Syria.
ISIL's advances show that Iraq's security forces - trained and equipped by Washington at a cost of nearly $25 billion and numbering more than a million - are outmatched against insurgents who once took on the might of the United States.
Overnight on Tuesday, ISIL militants moved on Baiji, home to Iraq's largest refinery, which can process 300,000 barrels per day and supplies oil products to most of Iraq's provinces and as well as Baghdad.