ISIL captures two Iraqi towns, oil field, defeating Kurdish fighters
BAGHDAD - Reuters
Smoke rises during clashes between Iraqi security forces and militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL, in the Hamrin mountains in Diyala province, July 29. REUTERS PhotoIslamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants have captured two northern Iraqi towns and an oil field in their first major victory over Kurdish fighters, witnesses said on Aug. 3.
The al-Qaeda offshoot, which swept through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by Iraq's U.S.-trained army, poses the biggest challenge to the stability of the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled the Islamic State offensive, Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters have emerged as a key line of defence against the militants, who have threatened to march on Baghdad.
Kurdish forces poured in reinforcements, including special forces, to the town of Zumar this weekend to battle Islamic State fighters who had arrived from three directions on pickup trucks mounted with weapons, residents said.
The militants later hoisted their black flag over buildings in Zumar, a ritual that has in the past been followed by the mass execution of captured opponents and the violent imposition of an ideology that even al-Qaeda finds excessive.
The Islamic State later also seized the town of Sinjar, where witnesses said residents had fled after Kurdish fighters put up little resistance against the militants.
Islamic State has stalled in its drive to reach Baghdad, halting just north of the town of Samarra, 100 km north of the capital.
The ISIL changed its name earlier this year and declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. The group has already seized four oil fields, which help fund its operations.
The group has been trying to consolidate its gains, setting its sights on strategic towns near oil fields, as well as border crossings with Syria so that it can move easily back and forth and transport supplies.
It has capitalised on sectarian tensions and disenchantment with Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Critics describe Maliki as an authoritarian leader who has put allies from the Shi'ite majority in key military and government positions at the expense of Sunnis, driving a growing number of the religious minority in Iraq to support the Islamic State and other insurgents.