BAGHDAD — Militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Sunday seized two small towns in northern Iraq after driving out Kurdish security forces, further expanding the territories under their control, officials and residents said.
The fresh gains by the Sunni extremist militants have forced thousands of residents to flee from the religiously mixed towns of Zumar and Sinjar, toward the northern self-ruled Kurdish region, the United Nations said. Some of them were trapped in an open rugged area, it added.
The governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who fled to the largely autonomous Kurdish region when ISIS and allied Sunni militants seized the city in June, told the Associated Press that the two towns fell after fierce clashes that erupted the day before.
A resident in Sinjar said the militants blew up a small revered Shiite site and two Yazidi shrines. Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking sect and religious minority. Another resident in Zumar said they took over at least two small oil fields. Both spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The U.N. mission in Iraq, known as UNAMI, said as many as 200,000 civilians, mostly Yazidis, have fled to a nearby mountain but were surrounded by militants and endangered.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. ISIS, an al-Qaida breakaway group, captured large swaths of land in the country's west and north in a lightning offensive this year.
ISIS has carved out a self-styled caliphate in a large area straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The fighting in Zumar and Sinjar was widely reported to have spread to the nearby Mosul Dam on Sunday. But Jabar Yawer, the spokesman for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military in semi-autonomous northern Iraq, said late Sunday that Kurdish forces are still in control of the dam, emphasizing that ISIS has not been successful in an attempted takeover.