Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Picture: REUTERS
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Picture: REUTERS

KIRKUK — Jihadists were pushing toward Baghdad on Thursday after capturing a town just hours to the north, as the US mulled air strikes in a bid to bolster Iraq’s collapsing security forces.

Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have spearheaded a major offensive that began late on Monday, overrunning the northern province of Nineveh and significant parts of Kirkuk to its southeast and Salaheddin to its south.

On Thursday morning they were advancing on Baghdad, after seizing the town of Dhuluiyah just 90km away, witnesses and officials said, adding that the nearby Muatassam area had also fallen.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised the group would drive on to Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, in a statement carried by jihadists’ websites.

With militants closing in, Iraq’s parliament was to meet in emergency session on Thursday to consider a request from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the president’s office to declare a state of emergency.

Doing so requires a two-thirds vote, making it unlikely to pass the sharply divided parliament, which has produced little significant legislation in years and is often poorly attended.

The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, at the start of the year. It has been a blow for Western governments that invested lives and money in the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Washington was considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Resorting to such aircraft — used in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in a highly controversial programme — would mark a dramatic shift in the US engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was committed to "working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL’s continued aggression". But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where about 4,500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was "no question" of British troops being sent back to Iraq.

The United Nations Security Council has called crisis talks for Thursday, with diplomats saying closed consultations would begin at 11:30 am (15.30 GMT).

The militants overran Iraq’s second city Mosul on Tuesday before taking control of its surrounding province Nineveh and sweeping into Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces.

The fighters encountered little effective resistance from the army, with many soldiers discarding their uniforms and joining tens of thousands of civilians, many who fled towards the relative safety of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

Tikrit, hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein and capital of Salaheddin, fell on Wednesday as the jihadists and their allies captured a string of mainly Sunni Arab towns where resentment against the Shiite-led government runs deep.

The first sign of resistance came late on Wednesday when the militants were repulsed in heavy fighting as they tried to enter Samarra, a mainly Sunni Arab that is home to a shrine revered by the country’s Shiite majority.

State television said security forces responded with air strikes. Residents said the fighting subsided without the jihadists managing to enter the city. Instead, the gunmen pushed further south towards Dhuluiyah.

"There is panic among residents," who are buying up goods and forming long queues at petrol stations, Thair Mohammed told AFP from the city.

A resident of Dhuluiyah, Abu Abdullah, said the situation in the town was calm on Thursday, but people were keeping to their houses. He said he had heard air strikes the night before.

The International Organisation for Migration has estimated that more than 500,000 people have been displaced in and around Mosul.

Militants also stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped 49 people including the head of the mission and three children, a Turkish official said. They were in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers seized by ISIL at a Mosul power station, and Ankara pledged harsh reprisals if any were harmed.

US Vice President Joe Biden called for the "safe and immediate" return of the hostages.

A White House statement said Mr Biden had told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call that Washington "is prepared to support Turkey’s efforts to bring about the safe return of its citizens".

Known for its ruthless tactics and suicide bombers, ISIL is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar al-Assad inside Syria as well as the most powerful militant group in Iraq.

In a show of its determination to unite its thousands of fighters in the two countries, the group posted photographs on the internet of militants bulldozing the border berm to open a road.