MOSUL, Iraq: The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul Tuesday, putting security forces to flight in a spectacular show of strength against Baghdad.
The capture of the city of some 2 million by the Al-Qaeda splinter group adds to its grip on key western cities and followed four days of heavy fighting in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.
The United States, which pulled out its troops two-and-a-half years ago, pledged to help Iraqi leaders “push back against this aggression” they said threatened the entire region, as the government of Prime Minister Nouri 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 ISIS flew over government buildings.
“We have lost Mosul this morning,” a colonel at a local military command center said. “Army and police forces left their positions and ISIS 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 Fallujah 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 ISIS and its allies consolidate control along the barely populated frontier with Syria, where they have seized large swathes of territory.
Thousands of families were fleeing north from Mosul toward 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 was killed last year, in a bombing.
In a statement, the U.S. 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.”
“The United States will provide all appropriate assistance to the government of Iraq,” it added, saying that its use of arms and fighters from Syria showed “ISIS is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region.”
Two army officers said security forces had received orders to quit Mosul after militants captured the Ghizlani army base and set more than 200 inmates free from a high-security prison.
Two police sources and a local government official said the militants had also broken into another jail called Badush, allowing more than 1,000 prisoners to escape. Most of these, they said, belonged to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The army and police set fire to fuel and ammunition depots as they retreated to prevent the militants from using them, the officers said.
Provincial Governor Atheel Nujaifi Monday made a televised plea to the people of Mosul to stand their ground. Hours later, Nujaifi himself narrowly escaped the provincial headquarters in the city after militants attacked it.
Nujaifi’s brother Osama, who is speaker of the parliament in Baghdad, called on the Kurdish leadership to send their region’s peshmerga forces to Mosul and wrest it back from “terrorists.”
Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said his region had tried to coordinate with Iraqi federal authorities to protect Mosul, but Baghdad’s stance had made it impossible.
At least 20 people were killed when two bombs exploded at a cemetery in the city of Baqouba about 50 km northeast of Baghdad, as mourners buried a professor shot dead the previous day, police and medics said.