Iraqi officials say militants seize city of Tikrit

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Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June. 11, 2014. The Iraqi government has tightened its security measures after a stunning assault that exposed Iraq’s eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the Iraqi second-largest city. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

Iraqi federal policemen stand guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June. 11, 2014. The Iraqi government has tightened its security measures after a stunning assault that exposed Iraq’s eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the Iraqi second-largest city. (AP Photo/ Karim Kadim)

Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

A Kurdish policeman stands guard while refugees from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

In this Monday, June 9, 2014 image taken from video obtained from the Iraqi Military, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, armed Iraqi soldiers take their positions during clashes with militants in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Insurgents on Tuesday pressed their efforts to seize effective control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday after Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts and militants overran the provincial government headquarters and other key buildings, dealing a serious blow to Baghdad’s attempts to tame a widening insurgency in the country. (AP Photo/Iraqi Military via AP video)

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Al-Qaida-inspired militants seized effective control Wednesday of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, expanding their offensive closer to the Iraqi capital as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts following clashes with the insurgents.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control a day earlier of much of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in a major blow to the authority of the country’s Shiite government. An estimated half a million residents fled the economically important city.

Residents reached by telephone in Sunni-dominated Tikrit said the Sunni militant group had taken over several police stations. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety.

Two Iraqi security officials confirmed Tikrit was under the control of the ISIL, and said the provincial governor was missing. The officials insisted their names not be used because they weren’t authorized to release the information. Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, is 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the massive security failure in Sunni-dominated Ninevah province that allowed militants to seize Mosul was the result of a “conspiracy,” and that those members of the security forces who fled rather than stand up to the militants should be punished.

He stopped short of assigning direct blame, however, choosing to focus instead on plans to fight back — without detailing the specifics.

“Today, the important thing is that we are working to solve the situation,” a stern-faced al-Maliki said. “We are making preparations and we are regrouping the armed forces that are in charge of clearing Ninevah from those terrorists.”

The stunning assault by the al-Qaida-inspired group saw black banner-waving insurgents raid government buildings, push out security forces and capture military vehicles as residents fled for their lives.

Mosul is the capital of Ninevah province. It and the neighboring Sunni-dominated province of Anbar share a long and porous border with Syria, where the Islamic State is also active.

Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi told reporters that “Mosul is capable of getting back on its feet and getting rid of all the outsiders,” and said authorities planned to mobilize residents into popular militias that would play a role in retaking the city.

There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the assault but the rampage sent an estimated 500,000 people fleeing from the city and surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Some simply crossed to the eastern bank of the Tigris River to avoid the worst of the fighting, while others made their way to the Ninevah countryside or sought refuge in the nearby semiautonomous Kurdish region.

Getting into that area has grown trickier, however, with migrants without family members already in the enclave needing to secure permission from Kurdish authorities, according to the IOM.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the fall of the major northern city to insurgents must push the country’s leaders to work together and deal with the “serious, mortal threat” facing Iraq.

Speaking on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in Athens, he said Iraqi troops and forces belonging to the Kurdish region’s government could work together to push the insurgents out.

“We can push back on the terrorists … and there would be a closer cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together and try to flush out these foreign fighters,” he said.

Mosul residents reached Wednesday said gunmen went around knocking on their doors, reassuring locals they would not be harmed and urging civil servants to return to work. The situation appeared calm but tense, said the residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety.

In an eastern section of the city, 34-year-old Ali

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