Mosul (Iraq), June 10 (Reuters): An al Qaida splinter group in Iraq seized control of the big northern city of Mosul today, putting security forces to flight in a spectacular show of strength against the Shia-led Baghdad government.
The capture of the city of some two million by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Sunnis waging sectarian war on both sides of the nearby Iraqi-Syrian border, adds to its grip on key western cities and followed four days of heavy fighting in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.
The US, which pulled out its troops two and a half years ago, pledged to help Iraq leaders “push back against this aggression” as the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency.
But the battle, for the time being, seemed to be over, with police discarding uniforms and weapons and fleeing a city where the black flag of ISIL was flying over government buildings.
“We have lost Mosul this morning,” said a colonel at a local military command centre. “Army and police forces left their positions and ISIL terrorists are in full control.
“It’s a total collapse of the security forces.”
A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of soldiers and policemen, some mutilated, littering the streets. “We can’t beat them. We can’t. They are well trained in street fighting and we’re not. We need a whole army to drive them out of Mosul,” one officer said. “They’re like ghosts: they appear, strike and disappear in seconds.”
The fall of Mosul, a largely Sunni Arab city after years of ethnic and sectarian fighting, deals a serious blow to Baghdad’s efforts to fight Sunni militants who have regained ground and momentum in Iraq over the past year, taking Falluja and parts of Ramadi, in the desert west of Baghdad at the start of the year.
Control there, in Anbar province, as well as around Mosul in the north, would help ISIL and its allies consolidate control along the barely populated frontier with Syria, where they are fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shia Iran.
Thousands of families were fleeing north from Mosul, one of the great historic cities of West Asia, towards the nearby Kurdistan region, where Iraq’s ethnic Kurds enjoy autonomy.
“Mosul now is like hell. It’s in flames and death is everywhere,” said Amina Ibrahim, who was leaving with her children. Her husband had been killed last year, in a bombing.
In a statement, the US state department said it was “deeply concerned” and had senior officials in Baghdad and Washington monitoring events in coordination with the Iraqi government, Kurdish officials and other Iraqi figures. It said Washington would “support a strong, coordinated response”.
Militants also control the Qayara district near Mosul, where there is a military base and an airfield, security sources said. In the neighbouring province of Salahaddin, they overran three villages in the Shirqat district, torching police stations, town halls and local council buildings before raising ISIL’s banner.
Over loudspeakers, insurgents said residents — and the police — would be safe if they remained in their homes. Yesterday, provincial governor Atheel Nujaifi made a televised plea to the people of Mosul to stand their ground.