IRBIL, Iraq — Militants from the Islamic State made a surprise attack early Thursday on strategic villages near Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, apparently capturing significant territory and sending thousands of refugees into the city.
Kurdish military officials said that the situation was under control, but the flow of people suggested otherwise — a startling reversal in a region long presumed safe from an Islamic State incursion. The United States, worried about security in Baghdad two months ago, selected Irbil as one of two Iraqi cities safe enough to receive staff evacuated from the U.S. Embassy.
Falah Bakir, the foreign minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government, said in an interview with CNN that the Kurds faced disaster and needed immediate assistance. “We are left alone in the front to fight the terrorists of ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, who used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“I believe the United States has a moral responsibility to support us, because this is a fight against terrorism, and we have proven to be pro-democracy, pro-West, and pro-secularism,” Bakir said.
Tensions were high in the Kurdish capital. Western oil companies based in Irbil were shutting down operations and restricting their employees’ movements out of concerns for safety, while makeshift shelters popped up in public parks and churches in the Ain Kawa neighborhood to accommodate hundreds of people who’d fled. There was a noticeable increase in the presence of the Kurdish peshmerga militia in the city.
“I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told the Agence France Presse news agency. If verified, the fall of those villages would represent the loss of the largest Christian communities in Iraq.
Kurdish officials repeatedly have claimed that the United States and the Iraqi government in Bagdhad have refused to send military aid and that they have only Saddam Hussein-era weapons and limited ammunition to counter Islamic State forces that are armed with advanced American weaponry captured from Iraqi army depots in June.
A statement attributed to the Islamic State posted on the Internet said that the Islamists would target Irbil as retaliation for Kurdish officials’ agreement earlier this week to coordinate operations against the Islamic State with the central government in Baghdad.
“We are pleased to announce to the Islamic nation a new liberation in Nineveh province, teaching the secular Kurds a lesson,” the statement said.
The United States has long been seen as the Kurdish region’s protector. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone over the region to prevent Saddam Hussein’s air force from attacking. The Kurdish zone became a rare outpost of economic development in an era when harsh trade restrictions were imposed on the rest of Iraq. After U.S. forces toppled Saddam in 2003, the region enjoyed enormous autonomy and was largely free of the sectarian warfare and chaos that plagued the rest of Iraq during the American occupation.
Prior to this week, there had been only limited clashes between the Islamic State and the Kurds’ peshmerga militia along the nearly 900-mile border between the Kurdish region and areas the Islamists captured in June. But that changed after the Islamic State last weekend captured Sinjar in northwestern Iraq and attempted to take Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest. Though the area technically lies outside the boundaries of what is known as the Kurdistan Regional Government, it has a predominantly Kurdish population, and the Kurdish government ordered a counteroffensive, including attacks by thousands of Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria.
In response, Wednesday night, the Islamist forces attacked peshmerga positions just a few miles to the southeast of Irbil, taking at least partial control of the village of Makhmour, a town that controls the main highway linking Irbil with Kirkuk to the south.
There were also local news reports, citing witnesses, that the black flag of the Islamic State was seen flying over the Mosul Dam on Thursday despite official government claims it remained in Kurdish hands.
The Islamic State statement on Thursday claimed it had taken control of a total of 15 villages and the dam since the weekend.
On Thursday, the Islamic State attacked peshmerga positions along the highway connecting Irbil to Mosul, overrunning the village of Gwer and at least part of the Christian village of Qarakosh, where tens of thousands of Christians had fled after Mosul fell.
Heavy mortar and artillery fire into the neighboring city of Bartella also sent the population running for Irbil.
Inside Irbil, peshmerga security forces expanded their presence and checkpoints in an effort to keep control of the flood of refugees. Reports from Kalak, the main checkpoint entering Irbil from Mosul, indicated authorities had shut the road to the flood of fleeing people and were diverting them to a nearby refugee camp that already houses tens of thousands.