BAGHDAD (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — An al Qaeda splinter group has vowed to march on to Baghdad after seizing two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq, as the nation’s military reportedly launched its first airstrikes against the militants in one of the locations.
A spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said the group had old scores to settle with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, also threatened that ISIS (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) fighters would take the southern Iraqi Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.
The statement, which could not be independently verified, came in an audio posting Thursday on militant websites commonly used by the group.
ISIS seized effective control Wednesday of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, expanding their offensive closer to the Iraqi capital as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents. A day earlier, the militants — possibly aided by regional tribal militias — took control of much of Mosul.
There were reports in Arab and Iraqi media Thursday morning that Iraqi aircraft were bombarding ISIS positions around Tikrit ahead of an anticipated ground offensive against the militants, but those reports could not be immediately confirmed. Iraq has few, if any, fighter jets, but its military does have relatively new American-made attack helicopters.
A short video posted late Wednesday night to the Iraqi military’s YouTube channel showed what was purportedly an Iraqi air force helicopter bombing ISIS positions in Tikrit, but there was no way to independently verify when the 10 second clip — which gave no visual clues as to where it might have been shot — was actually filmed.
The stunning assault by the al Qaeda splinter group, which started on Sunday night, saw black banner-waving insurgents raid government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles and helicopters as thousands fled for their lives from Tikrit.
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer said the only sign of Iraq’s military or police in the seized cities on Wednesday, were the uniforms and weapons they abandoned as they fled. Iraqi officials said Wednesday — prior to the fall of Tikrit — that they had a “plan” to oust the militants from Mosul, but they didn’t share any details.
In response to reports suggesting Iraq was “open” to U.S. drone or jet strikes on ISIS positions, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan released a statement saying the Obama administration was “not going to get into details of our diplomatic discussions,” but added that the U.S. had “expedited shipments of military equipment since the beginning of the year, ramped up training of Iraqi Security Forces, and worked intensively to help Iraq implement a holistic approach to counter this terrorist threat. Our assistance has been comprehensive, is continuing, and will increase.”
An estimated half a million residents fled Mosul, which is Iraq’s second-largest city and a vital economic hub.
Palmer explained that ISIS has lofty ambitions — hoping to establish a fundamentalist Muslim state spanning from Iraq right across the border through neighboring Syria, where the group has fought for months against President Bashar Assad’s regime, claiming significant swathes of territory in the country’s north.
“Their own map, and their own vision of the territory actually doesn’t include the border between Syria and Iraq,” explained CBS News security analyst Juan Zarate. “ISIS is a brutal group — so much so that they’re now in conflict with al Qaeda — but, not mistake about this, these are bad guys. These are the extreme of the extreme, and they are now routing the Iraqis, so much so that you now have a real question of whether or not the Iraqi state can even control their advance.”
“This is now the worst case scenario that you can imagine from a counter-terrorism standpoint; bad guys controlling major cities in Iraq,” said Zarate.
The Sunni militants also gained entry Wednesday to the Turkish consulate in Mosul and held captive 48 people, including diplomats, police, consulate employees and three children, according to an official in the office of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Residents reached by telephone in Sunni-dominated Tikrit said the Sunni militant group had taken over several police stations. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.
Two Iraqi security officials confirmed Tikrit was under the control of the ISIS, and said the provincial governor was missing. The officials insisted their names not be used because they weren’t authorized to release the information. Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, is 80 miles north of Baghdad.
As night fell, several hundred gunmen were in Tikrit, with clashes still taking place between the insurgents and military units on its outskirts, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra.
The Iraqi military was already working to dislodge the ISIS from Fallujah, which they overran in January.
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