Militants who seized large areas of Iraq’s Sunni heartland with lightning advances this week have pushed into an ethnically mixed province and captured two towns north east of Baghdad, officials said.
The fresh gains by insurgents, spearheaded by fighters from the al Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, come after the militants captured the country’s second-largest city of Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, as well as military and police bases.
The fast-moving rebellion, which also draws support from former Saddam-era figures and other disaffected Sunnis, has emerged as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011.
It has pushed the nation closer to a precipice that could partition the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish zones, as prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government struggles to form a coherent response.
The assault also threatens to embroil Iraq more deeply in a wider regional conflict, already feeding off the chaos caused by the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Britain yesterday said it might offer assistance with counter-terrorism expertise to authorities in Iraq fighting the insurgency.
Speaking after talks on Iraq with US Secretary of State John Kerry in London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “In the UK, we are not planning a British military intervention, but we are looking urgently at other ways to help, for example with counter-terrorism expertise. Work is under way on that now and we will continue to liaise closely with our United States allies in particular on that.
“A British team of emergency aid experts from the Department for Interbational Development arrived in Iraq early this morning and are looking urgently at what the UK can do on that front.”
Mr Hague also urged Iraq’s political leaders from different communities to unite in responding to the “brutal agression against their country”, and said that Britain would continue to press at the United Nations for a concerted international response.
In Iran, the official IRNA news agency reported that former members of Tehran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard had announced their readiness to fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, while Iranian state TV quoted president Hassan Rouhani as saying his country will do all it can to fight terrorism next door.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism,” the Iranian report said Mr Rouhani told Mr al-Maliki by phone.
Tehran has built close political and economic ties with post-war Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shiites have lived for stretches of time in the Islamic Republic. Iran earlier this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security along its borders.
Police officials said militants had entered the two towns in Diyala province – Jalula, 80 miles north east of Baghdad, and Sadiyah, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts without any resistance, they said. Residents in Jalula said the gunmen issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi soldiers not to resist and give up their weapons in exchange for safe passage out of the city.
The Islamic State has vowed to march on Baghdad, but with its large Shiite population, the capital would be a far more difficult target.