Islamists from Al Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) continue to gain ground in northern and eastern Iraq Friday, conquering both Saadiyah and Jalawla as they move throughout the Diyala province toward Baghdad from the west.
Sources told Reuters Friday that the Islamists have also captured several small villages in the Himreen mountains, and are conquering the region, town by town.
Battles have also broken out near Baqubah, the capital of Diyala just north of Baghdad, according to the Telegraph.
The Iraqi government says it has boosted Baghdad's defenses later Friday, as the ISIS continues to advance toward the capital.
"We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad," Brigadier General Saad Maan, an interior ministry spokesman, told AFP. "The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as (observation) balloons and cameras and other equipment," he said.
"We have been in a war with terrorism for a while, and today the situation is exceptional," he added.
Hundreds of thousand of people are fleeing into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, according to the Telegraph, as this week's refugee crisis escalates.
Eyewitnesses say that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's forces have melted away in the face of ISIS fighters, who have now captured numerous of former US military equipment - including up to 15 tanks, armored cars, and at least two helicopters, according to the Daily Mail.
Meanwhile, images from captured cities such as Mosul and Tikrit showed a bloody massacre of Iraqi forces, as well as deserted streets, burnt homes and vehicles and discarded uniforms left by government troops fleeing the brutal fanatics. In Mosul, ISIS captured scores of US-made vehicles and equipment, as well as an airport which housed several military aircraft.
ISIS leaders have reportedly urged their jihadists to continue their march, and threatened that battle would rage in Baghdad and in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala. Shi'ite Muslims reportedly are fleeing the region to the south.
Tracking ISIS progress
The ISIS has already controlled the Iraqi city of Fallujah for five months, and has also led one of the strongest rebel movements fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria.
But this week's offensive has seen the ISIS claim a stunning number of victories in a lighting-fast takeover of the flashpoint region.
So far, the Islamists have made a systemic advance from northern Iraq and southward.
Advancing toward Baghdad, large-scale clashes have erupted in Samarra; on the eastern front, Kurdish forces took Kirkuk to fend off the Islamist advance on Thursday, and the town of Jawlala fell to ISIS on Friday.
In addition, the Daily Mail reports Friday that the Islamists have begun to "fill the gaps" between cities - taking over small villages and surrounding Baiji, which houses Iraq's largest oil refinery.