Sunni militants swept rapidly Wednesday toward Iraq's capital, Baghdad, facing almost no resistance as they wrested control of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit from Iraqi forces — part of a fast-moving advance prompting fresh concern in Washington that hard-fought gains during nearly a decade of U.S. occupation of the Mideast country are slipping away.
The surge by extremists loyal to the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also has triggered fears of a return of the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that tore through Iraq during the middle years of the U.S. occupation.
Moktada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite Iraqi cleric whose followers were accused of some of the most horrific atrocities inflicted on Sunnis during the 2006-2007 war, called Wednesday for the creation of a special forces outfit to defend religious sites in Iraq.
His statements, reported by government-backed media in neighboring and Shiite-dominated Iran, came as the ISIL faced resistance Wednesday on the outskirts of Samarra — a city considered sacred by many of the region's Shiite Muslims and located about 70 miles north of the Iraqi capital.
The violence near Samarra came one day after the ISIL fighters had seized control of large sections of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The development, which unfolded swiftly Tuesday, was seen by many as a major challenge to the government of Iraq's Shiite prime minister.
But the ISIL fighters weren't finished. Throughout Wednesday they engaged in a lightning advance southward, trampling checkpoints and key security posts in the major oil-refining town of Biaji as well as in Tikrit, where Iraqi military forces were reported to have laid down their weapons and walked away from their posts without a fight.
The publicly stated goal of the ISIL — which grew out of a group originally known as al Qaeda in Iraq following the U.S. military occupation of the nation — is to establish an Islamist Sunni caliphate straddling territory that spans across the Syria-Iraq border.
Some news reports have said that the ISIL commands as many as 10,000 fighters spread across Iraq and Syria.
One U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday, said that inside Iraq the group has about 2,500 fighters.
However, the official said that the ISIL is now "at its strongest point since 2006," controlling territory that has allowed its fighters to "plan attacks against Iraqi government targets in Baghdad and Shiite communities in central and southern Iraq."
In December, ISIL fighters seized the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad. Recent weeks saw the group launch attacks near Samarra.
But the sheer speed and scope of the wider assault over the past two days — clearly aimed at seizing a vast swath of new territory — has shocked regional authorities, including the government of Turkey, whose diplomats were taken hostage during the rampage.
The Obama administration, facing criticism from Republicans, who argue that the White House moved too quickly in pulling all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, acknowledged Wednesday that the violence may now be spinning out of control.
"The situation in Iraq is grave," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling Wednesday with President Obama in New England. "There is no doubt that the situation has deteriorated over the last 24 hours."
Asked whether the threat from Islamist havens in Syria and Iraq equated to the threat previously posed by al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mr. Earnest said the situation was "different" but that it was being watched "very carefully" by the U.S. authorities to ensure there was no targeting of American interests or personnel.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke Wednesday via telephone with the foreign minister of Turkey, which borders Iraq and had its consulate in Mosul ransacked by the ISIL on Tuesday. The Turkish consul general was taken hostage during the attack, along with 47 other Turkish citizens, and there was speculation Wednesday over the extent to which Turkey, which has launched military raids against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq during recent years, may be perched to respond to the situation militarily.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Mr. Kerry and other U.S. officials "join Turkey and the international community in calling for the immediate release of Turkey's kidnapped diplomatic personnel."
Meanwhile, some 500,000 Iraqis are reported to have fled Mosul, a city of roughly 2 million people. Many have sought safety to the north and west sides of the Tigris River, which splits the city.
Mr. Earnest said Wednesday that the deterioration of security in Iraq is rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue, and that U.S. officials were working with the Iraqi government to see how Washington can best help defuse mounting tension in the nation.
Regional experts say the situation around Mosul has the ingredients to become even more explosive because the city sits on an ethnic fault line between Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The latter have their own military force, the Peshmerga, to protect a large Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.
The al-Maliki element
But most of the shock Wednesday was generated by the speed at which the action moved south toward Baghdad. There were reports that ISIL fighters drove more than 60 vehicles into Tikrit, taking control of the provincial government headquarters and raising the group's signature black banner.
It was unclear how many people were killed during the push south. Several hundred gunmen were in downtown Tikrit on Wednesday night, and there were reports of some fighting on the city's outskirts.
More fighters would have been needed for the ISIL to hold Mosul, where Tuesday's rampage featured black banner-waving and machine gun-toting ISIL members on the backs of pickup trucks.
It was not clear Wednesday how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, would respond to the fact that his nation's second-largest city has fallen to Sunni extremists.
Mr. al-Maliki has held on to power despite accusations that policies are oppressive and have ignored the plight of Iraq's Sunni population. His government also is widely perceived in Washington to be closely allied with Iran's Shiite leaders.
Recent times saw the Obama administration straddle a thin line between supporting the al-Maliki government through the sale of U.S. military hardware, including fighter jets, while alternatively pressuring Baghdad to take a more inclusive posture toward Iraq's Sunnis.
The situation has been no less perplexing for Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Mr. al-Maliki has "obviously not been a good prime minister," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
"We had a pretty terse meeting with Maliki here," said Mr. Corker, referring to the prime minister's visit to Washington in October.
Speaking at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Mr. Corker said Mr. al-Maliki "has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al Qaeda efforts."
That reception for ISIL has appeared only warm since Mr. al-Maliki won a third term as Iraq's prime minster in May.
A senior Democrat on Capitol Hill also raised concerns Wednesday about the Iraqi leadership, as well as the nation's proximity to both Iran and to the violent civil war that has gripped Syria during recent years.
"Clearly, we must continue to support Iraqi security forces, but I'm concerned by reports that they have been using barrel bombs in their operations," said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and committee chairman.
Mr. Menendez said there are serious questions about a host of factors, including Iraq's role in Syria, the activities of Iraqi Shia militias fighting with Syrian President Bashar Assad's security forces and Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iranian airlines canceled all flights between Tehran and Baghdad due to security concerns, and Iranian leaders intensified security measures along the Shiite nation's borders, according to the Iranian government-run IRNA news agency.
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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