Saturday 25 October 2014

Militants overrun Iraqi city

Published 10/06/2014 | 13:17

Kurdish security forces stand guard while refugees leave Mosul after Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq's second-largest city (AP)

Islamic militants have overrun parts of Iraq's second-largest city, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings.

The battle for Mosul is a serious blow to Baghdad's attempts to tame a widening insurgency by a breakaway al Qaida group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Earlier this year, the group took over another Iraqi city, Fallujah, in the west of the country, and government forces have been unable to take it back after months of fighting.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency after the assault on Mosul. In a nationally televised press conference, he called for an urgent session for policy makers.

"Iraqi is undergoing a difficult stage," he said, acknowledging that militants had taken control of "vital areas in Mosul", and saying the public and government must unite "to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi".

Under the constitution, parliament can declare a 30-day state of emergency on a two-thirds vote by its members, granting the prime minister the necessary powers to run the country.

The insurgents took control of Mosul's government complex for northern Ninevah province - a key symbol of state authority - late yesterday after days of fighting in the city, 225 miles north west of Baghdad.

Today, Mosul residents said the militants appeared to be in control of several parts of the city, raising the black banners that are the emblem of the Islamic State.

The gunmen overran police stations and several prisons, setting free detainees who were seen running in the streets in their yellow jumpsuits, the residents said.

The fighters also seized helicopters at Mosul airport and seized weapons depots, according to parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi - a Sunni from Mosul. South of Mosul, several villages and a military air base around the town of Shurqat, in Salahuddin province, also fell to militants, Mr al-Nujaifi said.

"What happened is a disaster by any standard," he said. "The presence of these terrorist groups in this vast province ... threatens not just the security and the unity of Iraq, but the whole Middle East."

Mosul and Ninevah province is a key strategic area, a gateway to neighbouring Syria, where Islamic State has also grabbed swaths of territory. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been behind a wave of violence in Iraq, claiming to be the champion for Iraq's large and disaffected Sunni minority against the Shiite-led government, and it is also considered one of the most ruthless rebel forces fighting to topple president Bashar Assad in Syria.

Meanwhile, at least 15 people were killed and more than two dozen wounded in a bomb attack on a funeral in the central Iraqi city of Baqouba, officials said.

The explosion struck mourners gathered for the funeral of a Sunni university professor killed yesterday.

Baqouba, about 35 miles north east of Baghdad, is home to both Sunnis and Shiiites.

State TV said parliament would convene on Thursday. Legal experts said it could introduce powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.

Regaining Mosul poses a daunting challenge for Mr al-Maliki. The city has a Sunni Muslim majority and many in the community are already deeply embittered against his Shiite-led government.

During the nearly nine-year US presence in the country, Mosul was a major stronghold for al Qaida, and US and Iraqi forces carried out repeated offensives there, regaining a semblance of control but never routing the insurgents entirely.

Islamic militants and Iraqi troops have been fighting for days in Mosul, but overnight the government forces in the city appeared to collapse.

Insurgents overran the Ninevah provincial government building in the city - a key symbol of state control - in the evening, and security forces fled many of their posts.

Residents have started fleeing Mosul, although the size of the flight is not yet clear.

A government employee who lives about a mile from the provincial government building, Umm Karam, said she left with her family this morning.

"The situation is chaotic inside the city and there is nobody to help us," she said. "We are afraid. There is no police or army in Mosul."

The assault in Mosul is a sign of Iraq's reversals since American forces left the country in late 2011. Militants ramped their insurgency back up over the past two years. The Islamic State has presented itself as the Sunni community's champion against Mr al-Maliki's Shiite-led government as the group fights on both sides of the border in what Iraqi officials have said is an attempt to carve out an enclave for itself in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

The group, which was once al Qaida's branch in Iraq, was thrown out of the terrorist network after it expanded its operations in Syria against the orders of al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. It is considered one of the most ruthless rebel forces fighting to topple president Bashar Assad in Syria, where it has in seized a major city in the east and other territory.

In Iraq, the group rose up earlier this year to take over Fallujah and parts of the nearby city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. It has also been carrying out a campaign of bombings and other violence in Baghdad and other parts of the country.

In the Mosul fighting, insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers stormed the provincial headquarters, overpowering guards in a short firefight, according to Ali Mahmoud, the media official for Ninevah province.

He confirmed accounts by Mosul residents that many of the police and army forces that had been stationed in the city had disappeared.

Press Association

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