Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad after capturing a town only 90km to its north, in a lightning three-day offensive the Iraqi government has failed to stop.
Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have seized the town of Dhuluiyah, a municipal councillor, a police colonel and witnesses told AFP by telephone on Thursday.
The nearby Muatassam area has also fallen to militants, the municipal council member and witnesses said.
ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised the group would push on to Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is one of the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims, in a statement carried by jihadists websites.
With militants closing in, Iraq’s parliament was to meet for an emergency session on Thursday to consider a request from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the president’s office for it 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.
On Wednesday, the militants were repulsed in heavy fighting when they tried to enter Samarra, to the north, bypassing it and heading to Dhuluiyah.
Army Staff Lieutenant General Sabah al-Fatlawi said soldiers and “elite forces” backed by air strikes defeated a “fierce attack by ISIL members,” and that troops were regrouping to counter attack.
Samarra is mainly Sunni Arab but is home to a shrine revered by the country’s Shi’ite majority, a site whose bombing by al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2006 sparked a Shi’ite-Sunni conflict that killed tens of thousands.
“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 there was calm on Thursday, but people were keeping to their houses.
He said he heard air strikes the night before.
ISIL has spearheaded a major offensive that began late on Monday and since overrun the entire northern province of Nineveh and significant parts of Kirkuk to its southeast and Salaheddin to its south.
The offensive began in Nineveh provincial capital Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Witnesses said Thursday that people there were increasingly venturing out of their homes and that shops were reopening, but government offices remained shuttered.