Kurdish forces have taken control of Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk as Sunni militants continue their offensive towards Baghdad. Iraq's parliament has delayed a vote on declaring a state of emergency.
Peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, took control of oil-rich Kirkuk after the federal army abandoned its bases there, a Kurdish military spokesman said.
"The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga," spokesman Jabbar Yawar said. "No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now."
Iraqi Kurds have long wanted to incorporate Kirkuk province into their autonomous region, which they regard as their historical capital. The city lies at the heart of a bitter dispute with Baghdad, which strongly opposes the move.
Officially, the Iraqi government has said it will hold a referendum allowing the people of Kirkuk to decide whether to join the Kurdish region or remain under the governance of Baghdad. Such a vote, however, has been repeatedly postponed for security reasons, according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The Peshmerga's takeover comes as fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pushed toward Baghdad, continuing a three-day offensive in the country's Sunni heartland.
Iraqi soldiers reportedly also fled their posts in the city of Mosul and several other towns and cities in the face of the ISIS offensive. Mosul, the second largest city in the country, was seized by militants early Tuesday. On Wednesday, the militants seized control of Tikrit, which lies 170 kilometers (105 miles) north of Baghdad.
The splinter al Qaeda group has controlled the city of Fallujah for the past five months and has mounted raids in recent weeks in other parts of Iraq. It has also taken advantage of the civil war in neighboring Syria to gain a foothold there, where it is seen by some as the most capable of those forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad. The group is believed to be fighting to establish an Islamist emirate that would straddle Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament failed to reach a two-thirds quorum to declare a state of emergency, therefore delaying the vote. The declaration would give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki greater powers in tackling the growing insurgency.
hc/slk (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)