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Our man in Baghdad

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Hardened by years of battle in neighboring Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is routing the forces of a modern nation-state and gathering land with the ultimate goal of establishing an alternate form of governance, an Islamic caliphate.

“This is not a terrorism problem anymore,” says Jessica Lewis, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “This is an army on the move in Iraq and Syria, and they are taking terrain.”

In capturing Tikrit, famed as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants whom the secular dictator had not tolerated were moving south down Iraq’s main highway toward Baghdad. Lewis cited reports that Abu Ghraib, the city just to the west of the capital, was also under assault from ISIS forces that have held Fallujah and much of Ramadi since January.

“We are using the word encircle,” Lewis tells TIME. “They have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, and they have an aspirational goal to govern. I don’t know whether they want to control Baghdad, or if they want to destroy the functions of the Iraqi state, but either way the outcome will be disastrous for Iraq.”

ERBIL, Iraq — Kurdish officials said on Thursday that their forces were in firm control of the strategic oil city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq after government troops had abandoned their posts, introducing a new dimension into the swirling conflict propelled by Sunni militants pressing south toward Baghdad.

“The army disappeared,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, two days after militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept across the porous border from Syria to overrun Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then began a thrust toward Baghdad, capturing the town of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on Wednesday. The apparent involvement of Kurdish pesh merga forces drew new lines in the patchwork of allegiances and alliances, adding disciplined troops whose allegiance to the central government in Baghdad is limited. With its oil riches, Kirkuk has long been at the center of a political and economic dispute between Kurds and successive Arab governments in Baghdad

Suggested thesaurus for op-ed auto-column generation this week:

Resolve, dithering, Munich, plenty of blame to go around, leadership, surgical strikes, limited aid, Vietnam, Caliphate, exterminate the brutes, next six months.

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