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Iraqi state seems powerless to defend against Islamist advance

Families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive Thursday at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Arbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Iraqi Kurds took control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday after government forces abandoned their posts. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL — The long-predicted dissolution of a centrally controlled Iraq ruled from Baghdad appeared closer to reality on Thursday as radical Islamist fighters advanced through the country with little interference from what remained of Iraq’s disintegrating security forces.

Only militias tied to Iraq’s feuding religious and ethnic groups mounted serious resistance to the southward push by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who now appear to be supported by an ad hoc coalition of Sunni Muslim tribes and militant groups opposed to the Shiite-dominated central government.

With the lone exception of a helicopter assault on an insurgent position north of the central city of Tikrit, Iraqi army and security forces continued to abandon their posts whenever confronted by ISIS.

The collapse of central authority also was evident in Baghdad, where the Iraqi Parliament failed to muster a quorum to consider a request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a declaration of a state of emergency.

Al-Maliki responded in a statement read on state television by accusing Sunni political parties of conspiring to destroy the state. In recent days, al-Maliki, who also serves as the defense minister, has blamed the same parties for the army’s massive desertion in the face of the ISIS offensive.

“Iraq’s future at this point is being shaped by conflict rather than by a viable political system. No one really knows where it’s going,” Salman Sheikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said in a telephone interview from Beirut. “The long-term impact could be quite cataclysmic, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region.”

The prediction that Iraq would one day descend into an ungovernable space of feuding ethnic and religious groups was first made when U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Now that it seems to be happening, many are finding it difficult to grasp the unfolding reality.

The United States is not ruling out airstrikes to assist the Iraqi government fight a growing radical Islamist insurgency, President Barack Obama said on Thursday, raising the possibility of the first American military intervention in Iraq since the end of the U.S.-led war.

“It’s important to keep in mind that a major source of Iraq’s problems has been the refusal of the Maliki government, despite persistent U.S. encouragement, to reach out to its Sunni citizens to forge a unified and inclusive Iraq. No action on our part can resolve that disunity,” Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that warned against a positive U.S. response to an Iraqi request for U.S. airstrikes.

“It’s unclear how airstrikes on our part can succeed unless the Iraqi army is willing to fight, and that’s uncertain given the fact that several Iraqi army divisions have melted away,” the statement said.

Across Iraq were scenes that seemed unreal to those who have closely followed the ins and outs of that country’s byzantine politics.

The Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil announced that its highly trained militia, the peshmerga, had taken complete control of the city of Kirkuk, which has long been a point of competition between its Arab and Kurdish residents, after the mostly Arab government security forces had fled. The move makes the Kurds’ long-sought goal of control over the city a reality.

“The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. “No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”

In Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, whose fall late Monday was the beginning of ISIS’s rapid march, Islamic State fighters held a parade to show off the military equipment they’d seized when they captured military bases and weapons storehouses, according to local residents who spoke with Reuters.

The news agency said residents reported that the parade included Iraqi tanks and American-made Humvees as it passed through what had been the main government complex in western Mosul. Unconfirmed reports from the scene said two Iraqi Army transport helicopters overflew the city — apparently piloted by ISIS fighters.

In the majority Sunni Muslim town of Samara, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in 2006 triggered a bloodletting that killed thousands, the timely arrival of Shiite militia fighters from Baghdad, 70 miles away, appeared to have stopped a major push by ISIS fighters early Thursday to capture the town, according to Iraqi television reports based on residents interviewed by telephone.

There was speculation that an ISIS capture of Samara and a threat to the al-Askari mosque, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, would prompt Iran, which has been an ally of the al-Maliki government, to send troops. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a nationally televised speech on the situation in Iraq, raised the possibility of intervention to defend the Iraqi government.

But there were no confirmed sightings of Iranian troops, despite widespread reports that they’d arrived in the country and even had helped Iraqi security forces recapture Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which fell to ISIS on Wednesday. Tikrit remained under ISIS control Thursday, residents said.

Reuters contributed to this report.