Iraqi officials said Islamic militants pushed southward from the city of Mosul on Wednesday and have taken control of the city of Tikrit. The militants have also reportedly seized Iraq's biggest oil refinery, in the town of Beiji.
Tikrit was the home of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It is less than 200 kilometers from the capital Baghdad. Witnesses said the militants from the group "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" also seized police stations. They said the governor of the city is missing.
In Beiji, the militants set fire to the police station and courthouse. They also forced 250 guards from the refinery. Iraqi state television said on Wednesday that the Iraqi army expelled the militants from the refinery hours after it was seized.
Damaged vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces are seen during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Mosul, Iraq, June 10, 2014.
The International Organization for Migration said 500,000 people have fled their homes in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. There are also reports that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers removed their military clothing and fled to neighboring Kurdistan.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged residents of Mosul to retake the city. In a speech on Wednesday he strongly criticized members of the Iraqi military who fled Mosul. He said they were part of a plot against the government.
The seizing of Mosul by the militants is just the latest problem for the Iraqi government. Earlier this year, the militants took control of the city of Fallujah. After months of fighting, the Iraqi government has not been able to retake the city.
To the west of Mosul, the militants control part of eastern Syria along the Iraqi border. The militants are trying to establish an Islamic state in the area by joining eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.
Iraq is dealing with the worst violence since 2008. The United Nations reported that 4,500 people were killed this year. More than 900 have been killed in the past month alone.
I'm Christopher Cruise.