Editor’s Note: ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group, seized control of Mosul on Tuesday. Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and Iraq has declared a state of emergency.
Islamist insurgents seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city on Tuesday in a brazen military operation that underscored the weakness of the central government across vast swaths of the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a nationwide “state of maximum preparedness” after government forces fled Mosul in disarray following four days of fighting. He asked parliament to declare a state of emergency. But he didn’t say whether military forces were mobilizing to retake the city, 220 miles north of the capital, Baghdad.
By nightfall, the militants were still expanding their territorial conquests. Local security forces said the fighters had taken over territory in the neighboring province of Kirkuk to the east and parts of the city of Sulayman Beg to the south.
Mosul was captured by rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS—a group that evolved from al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate. The takeover of a major industrial and oil center and the main city in northern Iraq marked a major coup for a group that only months ago was operating in the country’s vast desert hinterlands.
It was the latest evidence of the disorganization that has beset Iraqi security forces since the U.S. military withdrew from the country in December 2011. It also underlined the determination of ISIS to establish an Islamic emirate encompassing the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, to weaken the already fragile Iraqi state and to expand the theater of the three-year-old civil war in neighboring Syria.
“ISIS is designing its campaign around the state that it believes it has already created,” said Jessica Lewis, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who is now research director for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Following nine years of U.S.-led war, at a cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, the attacks touched off Republican criticism of the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a security agreement that would have allowed the U.S. to keep troops in the country beyond 2011.
In response, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the U.S. would continue to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS.
“President Obama promised to responsibly end the war in Iraq and he did,” she said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said the attacks show the degree to which Islamist militants have established a revolving door between Iraq and Syria, with fighters flowing easily between the two countries and fueling conflict in both.
The Obama administration expressed concern about the fall of Mosul. The State Department said ISIS “is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region.”
Osama al Nujaifi, speaker of Iraqi parliament, said insurgents had seized not only Mosul, but the entire province of Nineveh, where the city of nearly two million people is located.
“What happened in the past few days and what happened today is a complete occupation of the province of Nineveh,” said Mr. Nujaifi, whose brother, Atheel, is governor of the province.
Mosul residents said they were shocked at the ease of the takeover by hundreds of rebels.
The fighters seized control of the provincial government headquarters, important oil installations in the surrounding province and Mosul airport, the parliament speaker said. They also took over television stations, police stations and military installations where U.S.-supplied fighter planes, helicopters and other heavy weaponry are based.
The insurgents raided at least one prison and freed all the prisoners. Military, police, and city officials fled the city.
Witnesses said government soldiers fled on foot, leaving the streets littered with abandoned army vehicles, weapons and uniforms. The vanquished soldiers knocked on doors and begged for civilian clothes so they could escape without being identified, Said Ahmed Khaza’al, a cosmetic dealer.
“The whole of Mosul collapsed today. We’ve fled our homes and neighborhoods, and we’re looking for God’s mercy,” said Mahmoud Al Taie, a dentist. “We are waiting to die.”
Residents who ventured out in the afternoon described an eerie calm of a city under occupation. Militants manned a few checkpoints at major junctions and sat on pickup trucks armed with high-caliber mounted machine guns.