Al-Qaeda-inspired militants pushed deeper into Iraq's Sunni heartland Wednesday, swiftly conquering Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.
The advance into former anti-government, rebel strongholds that had largely been calm before the Americans withdrew less than three years ago is spreading fear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling to hold onto power after indecisive elections, will be unable to stop the Islamic fighters as they press closer to Baghdad.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed group took control Tuesday of much of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, sending an estimated half a million people fleeing from their homes. As in Tikrit, the Sunni fighters were able to move in after police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.
The group stormed government buildings, television stations and banks. Fighters also freed an estimated 2,400 prisoners from jails in the northern Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.
ISIL, which has seized wide swaths of territory, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
The capture of Mosul — along with the fall of Tikrit and the militants' earlier seizure of the western city of Fallujah — have undone hard-fought gains against insurgents in previous years.
The White House said Wednesday that the security situation has deteriorated over the past 24 hours and that the United States was "deeply concerned" about ISIL's continued aggression.
There were no reliable estimates of casualties or the number of insurgents involved, though several hundred gunmen were in Tikrit and more were fighting on the outskirts, said Mizhar Fleih, the deputy head of the municipal council of nearby Samarra. An even larger number of fighters likely would have been needed to secure Mosul, a much bigger city.
The Turkish Consulate was among the targets in Mosul, where the head of the diplomatic mission as well as 24 staff members were kidnapped, a police colonel said.
"Certain militant groups in Mosul have been directly contacted to ensure the safety of diplomatic staff," a Turkish government source said, adding that there was no immediate information on the status of the diplomats.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an emergency meeting with the Undersecretary of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay to discuss the developments, Turkish media reported.
Besides its presence in Iraq, ISIL is a major force in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish forces have targeted ISIL in Syria and warned it against attacking a shrine in the northern province of Aleppo that is under Turkish jurisdiction.
ISIL fighters have also advanced into the oil-refinery town of Baiji, setting its courthouse and police station on fire and causing thousands of fearful residents to flee for safety, security sources said Wednesday.
But the major oil refinery in the town remained in government control and ISIL fighters were repelled in a rare success for Iraqi government forces protecting an important facility, officials said.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking in Athens on the sidelines of a meeting of European Union and Arab League foreign ministers, said the country’s leaders must work together to deal with the "mortal threat" facing Iraq.
Zebari said he had assured his colleagues there would be "closer cooperation" between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government to push the insurgents out of Mosul, saying it was "dramatic" for a large city like Mosul to fall and the security forces to be overrun. But he added that he was confident Iraqi security forces, along with the Kurdish peshmerga forces, would be able to push back the insurgents.
"There will be a closer cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government to work together and try to flush out these foreign fighters," he told a small group of reporters.
Zebari, who is from Mosul, said there was no time to waste.
"You cannot leave these people to stay there, to entrench themselves for a long time. So there has to be really a quick response to what has happened," he said. "It could be an inducement to all [of Iraq's leaders] to think about the greater interest and to resolve the problems and to form a new government on the basis of a national unity government."
Maliki called for a national state of emergency on Tuesday after his government lost control of Mosul and parts of Nineveh.
Mosul's fall was a heavy defeat for Maliki. His Shiite-dominated political bloc came first in April 30 parliamentary elections — the first since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 — but failed to gain a majority, forcing him to try to build a governing coalition.
"We will not allow Mosul to be under the banner of terrorism," Maliki said. "We call on all international organizations to support Iraq and its stance in fighting terrorism. The entire world will suffer if terrorism spreads."
He said the government would arm civilians who volunteered "to defend the homeland and defeat terrorism."
Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq's parliamentary speaker, said Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in Mosul when the attack began, action he described as "a dereliction of duty."
Violence raged elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday.
Police and hospital officials said a suicide bomber struck inside a tent where tribesmen were meeting to solve a dispute in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, killing 31 and wounding 46.
Car bombs in Shiite areas elsewhere claimed another 17 and maimed dozens, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Car bombs and suicide attackers are favorite tools of ISIL.
Al Jazeera and wire services