ERBIL, Iraq — Kurdish officials said Thursday that their forces were in firm control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq after government troops had abandoned their posts, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.
“The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, two days after militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant swept across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then began a thrust toward Baghdad, capturing the town of Tikrit on Wednesday.
The apparent involvement of Kurdish pesh merga forces drew new lines in the patchwork of allegiances and alliances, adding disciplined troops whose allegiance to the central government in Baghdad is limited.
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.”
At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Greece, Zebari called the insurgents’ strike “a serious, mortal threat,” adding, “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened.”
The urgency was underscored 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.
Iraqi officials said the government was trying to deploy special forces, backed by Shiite volunteers, to the north of the country in a counteroffensive against the militants.
After overrunning Mosul and Tikrit, the insurgents poured down the main north-south highway to reach Samarra, about 70 miles north of the Iraqi capital. 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 Thursday as to who was in control there and whether the refinery was operating.
At the same time, 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.