Jihadists seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and the Nineveh province on Tuesday, in a major blow to a government apparently incapable of stopping militant advances.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded by asking parliament to declare a state of emergency and announcing the government would arm citizens to fight the militants. “All of Nineveh province fell into the hands of militants,” parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi told journalists in Baghdad, adding the gunmen were heading south towards neighbouring Salaheddin province.
An army officer said hundreds of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a major assault on the security forces late on Monday. An interior ministry official said Mosul, the scene of deadly clashes since Friday, was “outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants”.
Soldiers and police stripped off their uniforms and fled, before the militants us loudspeakers to declare they had “come to liberate” the city of some two million people.
Predominantly Sunni Muslim Nineveh province has long been a militant stronghold and one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq.
ISIL, the most powerful militant group in Iraq, is also a key force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.
Mosul is the second city to fall from government control this year. Militants and allied tribesmen also control Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
An AFP journalist, himself fleeing the city with his family, said shops were closed, a police station had been set ablaze and that numerous security force vehicles had been burned or abandoned.
Hundreds of families were seen fleeing. Another AFP journalist said thousands of Mosul residents had fled for the safety of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Dozens of cars and trucks stretched out from one checkpoint on the boundary of the region.