Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called on parliament to declare a state of emergency after armed fighters believed to be part of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh and freed hundreds of prisoners.
Overnight, hundreds of rebels launched an assault on the provincial capital Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, engaging in combat with troops and police, officials said on Tuesday.
"The city of Mosul is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants," an Interior Ministry official told news agency AFP, making it the second city to fall to anti-government forces this year.
Earlier this year, ISIL took control of another Iraqi city, Fallujah, in the west of the country, and government forces have been unable to take it back. The far larger Mosul is an even more strategic prize. The city and surrounding Ninevah are a major export route for Iraqi oil and a gateway to Syria.
The developments prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, through his spokesman, to say he was "gravely concerned" by the deterioration of the security situation in the country. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the ISIL "continues to gain strength from the situation in Syria," adding that the group is transferring recruits, munitions and resources to the fight in Iraq.
"It should be clear that ISIL is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq but a threat to the entire region," she said.
In brief comments broadcast from Baghdad, 200 miles south of Mosul, Maliki called all citizens and tribes to arm themselves in order to fight ISIL across Iraq.
In a sign of the weight of the blow, Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency that would grant him greater power, saying the public and the government must unite "to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi."
Osama al-Nujaifi, the parliament speaker, said Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in Mosul when the attack began, an action he described as "a dereliction of duty." He said parliament would discuss the call for a state of emergency on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Iraqi state television channel Iraqiya reported that Maliki has asked the U.N., EU and the Arab League to "support Iraq in its war on terrorism."
The U.S., which pulled out its troops two and a half years ago, pledged to help Iraqi leaders "push back against this aggression"
In recent days, rebels have launched major operations in Nineveh and four other provinces, killing scores of people and highlighting both their long reach and the weakness of Iraq’s security forces.
Before Mosul fell, ISIL fighters took control of the governor’s headquarters, prisons and television stations, reports said. The group freed about 1,400 people held in the city’s jails, according to The Associated Press. A pro-ISIL Twitter feed boasted that fighters had released about 3,000 prisoners from three facilities.
Describing the assault, Ali Mahmoud, a media official for Nineveh, said rebels armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers stormed the provincial headquarters building in Mosul late on Monday night. He said the attackers were able to overpower the building guards after a short firefight.
He confirmed accounts by Mosul residents that many of the police and army forces who were stationed in the city had disappeared by Tuesday. Atheel al-Nujaifi, Nineveh’s governor, was in a nearby guesthouse but managed to escape from the area unharmed, Mahmoud said. Turkish media reported that 28 Turkish truck drivers were taken hostage by the ISIL fighters in Mosul.
Al Jazeera and wire services