Iraq verged on a sectarian fracturing on Thursday as Kurdish forces poured into the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk after government troops fled, while emboldened Sunni militants who seized two other important northern cities this week moved closer to Baghdad and issued threats about advancing into the heavily Shiite south and destroying the shrines there, the holiest in Shiism.
The rapidly unfolding developments came as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s entreaties for emergency powers stalled because of inaction by Parliament, which seemed paralyzed over the worst crisis to confront the country since it was convulsed by sectarian mayhem at the height of the American-led invasion nearly a decade ago. The inability or unwillingness of Mr. Maliki’s armed forces to hold their ground only compounded the crisis.
The American government’s apparent rejection of Mr. Maliki’s requests for airstrikes on the Sunni militants reflected a deep reluctance by the Obama administration to re-entangle the United States militarily in Iraq, where the last American forces withdrew more than two years ago after a divisive war that cost the United States nearly 4,500 soldier lives and more than $1 trillion.
Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces had taken full control of Kirkuk in northern Iraq as government troops abandoned their posts there and vanished. “The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.
Militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept across the porous border from Syria on Tuesday to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They have been driving toward the capital Baghdad since then, capturing the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, seizing parts of the oil refinery city of Baiji and threatening Samarra, a city sacred to Shiites just 70 miles north of Baghdad.
Unlike the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are disciplined and very loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state. The Kurds’ allegiance to the Shiite Arab-led Iraqi central government is limited, but neither are they known to be allied with the Sunni Arab militants. Many of the tens of thousands of Mosul residents who fled the militant takeover of the city have sought safety in Kurdish-controlled areas.
With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the center of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad. The disappearance of the Iraqi army from the city on Thursday appeared to leave Kirkuk’s fate in the Kurds’ hands.
Some Kurdish politicians quickly sought to take advantage, arguing that it was a moment to permanently seize control of Kirkuk and surrounding lands they have long regarded as part of a Kurdish national homeland.
“I hope that the Kurdish leadership will not miss this golden opportunity to bring Kurdish lands in the disputed territories back under Kurdish control,” Shoresh Haji, a Kurdish member of Iraq’s parliament, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera. “It is a very sad situation for Mosul, but at the same time, history has presented us with only one or two other moments at which we could regain our territory and this is an opportunity we cannot ignore.”
On Wednesday, Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, was quoted as saying that the Kurdish minority would “work together” with Baghdad’s forces to “flush out these foreign fighters,” but there were no reports of significant clashes between pesh merga forces and the militants.
At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Mr. Zebari called the insurgents’ capture of Mosul and other cities “a serious, mortal threat,” and he added: “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened.”
The urgency was underscored on Thursday when an insurgent spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, exhorted the militants to advance on the Iraqi capital and press on to the southern Iraqi Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, news reports said.
The Associated Press quoted him as urging his followers to march toward Baghdad because they “have an account to settle,” in a recording posted on militant websites commonly used by the group. The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified.
The spokesman was also quoted as saying that a high-ranking insurgent commander known variously as Adnan Ismail Najm or Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari had died in the insurgent offensive. According to Mr. Adnani, the commander had worked closely with the Jordanian-born former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by American troops in 2006.
The commander was detained for several years but was released two years ago, enabling him to prepare and command the operations that led up to the newest incursion, The A.P. said.
Parliamentary leaders in Baghdad called a special session of the legislature on Thursday to debate the imposition of a state of emergency that would give Prime Maliki wide powers to restrict citizens’ movements, impose curfews and censor the media. But by early afternoon it appeared the body would not have the quorum needed to pass the emergency decree. A senior government official told Agence France-Presse that only 128 of 325 members of Parliament attended the session, far short of the number needed for a formal vote.
Iraqi officials also said that the government was trying to deploy special forces, backed by Shiite volunteers, to the north of the country in a counteroffensive against the militants.
The militant commanders are said to include Baathist military officers from the Saddam Hussein era, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture during the American-led occupation. Mr. al-Douri took time out Thursday afternoon to visit the former dictator’s grave in the town of Awja, about three miles from Tikrit, a militant leader said.
After overrunning Mosul and Tikrit, the insurgents poured down the main north-south highway to reach Samarra.
The city is home to a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006 during the American-led occupation, igniting a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority. On the way, the insurgents were said to have taken positions in parts of the important refining town of Baiji, north of Tikrit, but there were conflicting accounts on Thursday as to who was in control there and whether the refinery was operating.
In Samarra on Thursday, witnesses said, militants who had been reinforced overnight by three columns of fighters in scores of vehicles were deployed in positions three miles east and north of the city. Other insurgents had pressed south to take the town of Dhuluiyah, closer to Baghdad, while two predominantly Shiite towns in the region, Balad and Dujail, remained in Shiite hands as forward bases for attempts to halt the insurgents.
At the same time, in what seemed to have the makings of a perilous standoff, battle-hardened Assaib and Kataibe Shiite militias that once fought the Americans had reached Samarra to reinforce pro-government forces there. Government troops who abandoned their posts further north had been ordered to report to the Taji military base, just north of Baghdad to regroup, officials said.
A senior militant commander said that, in Dhuluiyah, insurgents overran an air force base. It was not clear whether aircraft had been stationed at the base. The insurgents were also said to have captured an air force college, taking hundreds of prisoners among Shiites but allowing Sunni personnel and students to leave.
The swift capture of Mosul by militants crossing the border from Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have fused into a widening regional insurgency that jihadist militants have cast as the precursor to establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Describing the government’s response to the insurgency, officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said on Thursday that special forces and volunteers would be deployed to the north while security forces closer to the seat of government cracked down on cells of insurgent sympathizers around Baghdad.
For much of their initial advance, the insurgents have met scant resistance, with government forces shedding their uniforms, handing over weapons and equipment and abandoning checkpoints.
Separately, 49 Turkish citizens who were taken hostage after militants stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul on Wednesday were reported to be in good health and are expected to be released soon, a consulate employee told Turkish media.
The employee, an Iraqi who was not in the building at the time of the raid, said he had reached fellow workers by phone. He said they had told him that consular staff members, including the consul general, had not been harmed.