Kurdish Pershmerga militia fighters have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in an attempt to stymie advances by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which took control of several towns and cities in northern Iraq in a lightening offensive this week.
"The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. "No Iraq army remains in Kirkuk now."
Iraq's US-trained military has received fierce criticism, after tens of thousands of troops simply fled without a fight in the face of a much smaller ISIS force, allowing the extremist group to take over the country's second city of Mosul without a fight.
Authorities in the nearby autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) area had promised to protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flocked there to escape the notoriously-brutal Al Qaeda offshoot, as well as to block its advance into Kurdish areas.
But ISIS appears to have its gaze set firmly southwards; well-organized Kurdish forces would put up a much firmer resistance than the Iraqi army, and the group is already threatening to march on Baghdad, having continuing its advances by capturing the town of Tikrit on Wednesday night.
An ISIS spokesman identifying as Abu Mohammed al-Adnani made the threat to take the Iraqi capital from the Shia-lead government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and added that the Sunni Islamist group planned to push even further southwards into Shia Muslim strongholds such as the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
That move will alarm not only Iraqi Shias but also neighboring Iran, where officials have warned the country's armed forces could intervene to protect Shia shrines which would certainly be threatened by ISIS, which considers them idolatry.
"The border patrol has increased its vigilance on the Iran-Iraq border," Iran’s Police Chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam told Iran Wire. "The country’s Supreme National Security Council would consider intervening to protect Shia shrines and cities."
It comes as Turkey has also warned it could launch an armed intervention of its own if Turkish hostages in Mosul are harmed by ISIS.
An unnamed former senior Iranian diplomat told IranWire that if ISIS repeated the destruction of Shia shrines already seen in Syria, "all the options will be on the table" regarding an Iranian response.
"They [ISIS] know that we’re not kidding around, so we shouldn’t worry about them doing anything stupid. And if they’re foolish enough to even approach the shrines, they have to be prepared for anything... Battles, attacks, raids, massacre. All the options will be on the table."