Thousands flee as al-Qa'ida take Iraqi city
Al-Qa'Ida seized control of Iraq's third biggest city yesterday, freeing thousands of imprisoned fellow fighters in a series of jailbreaks and provoking a mass exodus of refugees.
In yet another attack exposing the weakness of Iraq's security forces, militants armed with heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades mounted a sustained assault on Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad.
As well as seizing the main governorate building, the gunmen were also believed to have gained control of three different jails, numerous police stations and an airport, where several military helicopters were based.
The loss of the city of roughly one million is a huge challenge to the Iraqi government, which has been struggling to quell a regalvanised al-Qa'ida insurgency for more than two years.
Criticism of the country's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, intensified when he offered to give weapons to any of Mosul's citizens who wanted to take on al-Qa'ida – despite his own forces retreating to the city's outskirts.
As residents fled in their thousands, they said militants raised al-Qa'ida's black flag from buildings, and newly-released prisoners were running through the streets in yellow jumpsuits. "Mosul now is like hell. It's up in flames," said Amina Ibrahim, who, like many others, was heading for northern Iraq's more stable Kurdish-controlled zone.
Officials said the militants also broke into several jails, including the Badush facility that was said to be home to more than 1,000 fellow insurgents.
The gunmen were believed to be from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the joint Iraqi-Syrian al-Qa'ida offshoot. Seizing control of Mosul, which lies on the river Tigris less than 100 miles from the Syrian border, will help the group's goal of an uncontested territory straddling the two borders.
While the exact picture in Mosul was still confused last night because of continuing fighting, the terrorists appeared to have made significant ground in routing Iraqi security forces.
Some lay dead in the streets, while some allegedly stripped off their uniforms and fled. Others were filmed being pelted with rocks by residents as their vehicles drove out of the city.
"We have lost Mosul this morning. Army and police forces left their positions and ISIS terrorists are in full control," said one army colonel. "It's a total collapse of the security forces."
The assault follows similar attempts by ISIS in January to seize the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, of which Iraqi security forces are still fighting to regain control five months later.
Mosul represents a far bigger prize, as the regional capital of the non-Kurdish section of northern Iraq. It has been a stronghold of al-Qa'ida for nearly a decade, since militants attempted a similar takeover in late 2004, when US troops were in control. While other cities were later largely cleared of al-Qa'ida during the US troop surge in 2007, the group was never properly removed from Mosul, where it has rebuilt its presence.
Last year, diplomats in Baghdad said the group had also established a thriving mafia-style extortion empire in the city, raking in "protection" fees from local businesses.
The assault on Mosul began about four days ago, around the same time that gunmen briefly took 1,000 students hostage at a university campus in Ramadi. Having gained control of most of the western side of Mosul, the insurgents seized the government complex late on Monday.
According to reports, the city's governor, Atheel Nujaifi, was trapped inside the provincial government's headquarters but managed to escape while police held back an assault by hundreds of militants.
Yesterday, Mr Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency. "Iraq is undergoing a difficult stage," he said, acknowledging that militants had taken control of "vital areas in Mosul". (© Daily Telegraph, London)