Iraqi families fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province walk through a checkpoint secured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces on Thursday. (Safin Hamed / Getty Images)
Baghdad— Islamic militants who seized cities and towns vowed Thursday to march on Baghdad to settle old scores, joined by Saddam Hussein-era loyalists and other disaffected Sunnis capitalizing on the government’s political paralysis over the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the U.S. withdrawal.
Trumpeting their victory, the militants also declared they would impose Shariah law in Mosul and other areas they have captured.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish security forces moved to fill the power vacuum — taking over an air base and other posts abandoned by the military in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
The move further raised concern the country could end up partitioned into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones.
Three planeloads of Americans were being evacuated from a major Iraqi air base in Sunni territory north of Baghdad, U.S. officials said, and Germany urged its citizens to immediately leave parts of Iraq, including Baghdad.
The U.N. Security Council met on the crisis, underscoring the growing international alarm over the stunning advances by fighters from the militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him and his Shiite-led government increased powers to run the country, but the lawmakers failed to assemble a quorum.
The Islamic State, whose Sunni fighters have captured large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the border. It has pushed deep into parts of Iraq’s Sunni heartland once controlled by U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes, including in Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.
Skirmishes continued in several areas. Two communities near Tikirt — the key oil refining center of Beiji and the city of Samarra, home to a prominent Shiite shrine — remained in government hands, according to Iraqi intelligence officials.
In its statement, the Islamic State declared it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves, and told residents to attend daily prayers.
The Islamic State’s spokesman vowed to take the fight into Baghdad. In a sign of the group’s confidence, he even boasted that its fighters will take the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.
Baghdad does not appear to be in imminent danger of a similar assault, although Sunni insurgents have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks in the capital recently.