ISTANBUL — Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Wednesday pushed their offensive south into Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland, capturing key crossroad towns on the highway to the capital, Baghdad, and taking control of a critical oil refinery.
As hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled their homes for the safety of nearby Kurdish-controlled areas, the fighters of the ISIS — clearly much more of an entity than the label “terrorist group” implies — captured the strategic city of Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein, controlled a critical oil refinery and power plant in the town of Baiji and were pushing into the mixed Kurdish-Arab city of Kirkuk and the city of Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad.
In Washington, Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, confirmed the fall of Tikrit and said the government is worried about deteriorating security around Kirkuk. He provided fresh insight into the depth of the unfolding debacle, saying that about 30,000 Iraqi forces had abandoned their posts in the face of the ISIS onslaught. “Disappointing is an understatement,” he said.
He also pleaded for U.S. support.
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But the crisis has yet to capture the attention of U.S. lawmakers in Washington, even though Iraq, where U.S. soldiers fought and died for the better part of a decade, is in full retreat from the radical Islamist group dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to question Stuart Jones, the man President Obama has nominated to be the next ambassador to Iraq. Yet not a single senator asked him directly about the Iraqi government’s apparent loss of control. No senator asked questions of the man who sat next to him, Alexander Sloan, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
No one pressed for answers about how many U.S. weapons supplied to the Iraqi forces had ended up in insurgents’ hands as Iraqi forces shed their uniforms and fled their posts. Or what the fate will be of the U.S. military assistance program to Iraq, on which U.S. taxpayers have already spent $14 billion. Or why they thought the U.S. training program for Iraq’s military had resulted in such a humiliating rout.
A Senate employee, asked about the omission, acknowledged surprise at the lack of curiosity from the Foreign Relations Committee about a country where nearly 4,500 Americans had died.
“I think that there is a general sense of apathy about Iraq,” the employee said, asking not to be identified.
Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the current Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, a think tank, said he believes that few in Washington have an appetite for discussing Iraq, even as it sinks into a crisis that White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday called “grave.”
“There is a fear of re-engaging in Iraq because we have turned the page,” Jeffrey said, referring to the 2011 pullout of the last U.S. troops. “This is presidential policy colliding with facts on the ground, facts that could change the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, in Tikrit, ISIS was receiving heavy support from local anti-government tribes under an insurgent coalition called the General Military Council. Witnesses inside Tikrit said the rebels had taken control of much of the city, which was being adorned with posters of Saddam.
Issa Ayal, a journalism professor, said the scene in Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, was a near repeat of ISIS’ capture late Monday of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, when government soldiers and police shed their uniforms and their weapons and fled their posts ahead of the ISIS attackers.
“They had civilian clothes and left their posts,” he said of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit.
“Many members of Tikrit’s tribes loyal to the late President Saddam joined the fighters and I can see and hear them chanting Tikriti songs and chants near the governor’s office,” he said.
In Baiji, which is also in Salahuddin province, ISIS fighters took control of the town and were poised to add one of Iraq’s most important oil refineries and pumping facilities to the substantial list of economic infrastructure captured in the past 48 hours. Security forces abandoned the facility, which is connected to a large electrical power plant, and ISIS fighters had taken control of the area, though it remained unclear if they had entered the plant. Ben Lando, editor of Iraq Oil Report, a trade publication based in Baghdad, said the Iraqi government would likely shut down the pipeline feeding the facility if ISIS did take control.
Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took to state airwaves to offer weapons to any civilians willing to fight against the quickly encroaching ISIS, a call to arms that was aimed primarily at the Shiite Muslim militias that successfully battled Sunni groups for control of Baghdad in a sectarian war from 2006 to 2008. But how many would respond was not clear, and a key former militia leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, suggested he would limit his response to protecting the Imam Ali Shrine in the holy city of Najaf, which is about 100 miles south of Baghdad and 200 miles south of the scene of Wednesday’s fighting.
Meanwhile, a number of Sunni Muslim tribes in the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin appeared to be joining the Islamist advance after years of tensions with the Shiite government in Baghdad.
The International Rescue Committee estimated that at least 500,000 people had fled fighting in Mosul by Wednesday afternoon, leaving a humanitarian crisis in the making as Iraq is already struggling to house 200,000 refugees from the fighting in neighboring Syria.
Also Wednesday, ISIS stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul and captured the consul-general, Ozturk Yilmas, a career diplomat, and 48 other employees, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in Ankara. On Tuesday it arrested 31 Turkish truck drivers as they were delivering diesel fuel to a depot in Mosul.
With 80 people being held, Turkey called for an emergency meeting of the NATO council. But it wasn’t clear what the government in Ankara would undertake as a response, or what support it would seek from its NATO allies. Reports in the Turkish media said ISIS had demanded a $5 million ransom for the release of the drivers. The fate of the diplomats was unclear. A Twitter account thought to be linked to ISIS stated that the “Turks are not kidnapped. They are only taken to a safe location and until the investigation procedures are completed.”
It was still unclear just how much U.S.-provided military equipment had been captured in the seizure of Mosul, but the booty no doubt totaled tons of heavy weapons. The Islamic State’s treasury also was no doubt swollen by the hundreds of millions of dollars the group’s fighters seized from government offices and banks in Mosul.
Material from the McClatchy Washington Bureau is included in this report.