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Insurgents overran much of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul Tuesday, seizing the provincial government headquarters, the airport, police stations, and prisons as members of the Iraqi army shed their uniforms and fled.
The capture of Mosul, described by news outlets as either Iraq's second- or third-largest city, underlines the growing strength of sectarian and extremist insurgencies in Iraq, and casts doubt on the capabilities of the US-trained Iraqi security forces.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute in Doha who studies extremist groups, told the Washington Post that this will prompt questions about whether the US should continue sending military equipment to the Iraqi government.
[Iraqi Prime Minister Nour] al-Maliki is urging the United States to deliver more advanced weaponry, but ISIS fighters have already been seen riding round in U.S.-supplied Humvees in other areas they control, and much of the weaponry captured in this latest battle is likely to be American, Lister said.
“Washington will be questioning how to move forward in terms of supporting the Iraqi army in its fight against terrorism,” he said. “Every time ISIS captures territory, it’s a reminder that it does so using weapons that have fallen into the hands of the forces the U.S. is trying to counter in the first place.”
Mr. Maliki reportedly called on parliament to declare a state of emergency in Mosul and impose martial law across the entire country amid a larger campaign by the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), across the country. Agence France-Presse reports that ISIS has launched offensives in Nineveh, Anbar, Diyala, Salaheddin, and Baghdad provinces in the last week.
ISIS is an evolution of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely pushed underground by the time of the US withdrawal. But ISIS reemerged in Syria after the civil war there broke out, and has resurfaced in Iraq. Earlier this year the group stormed the city of Fallujah, where the US fought some of its fiercest battles of the Iraq war, and swaths of Anbar Province.
While losing Fallujah was a blow for Maliki, its significance was partially symbolic. But Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province, is the commercial hub of northern Iraq and a cornerstone of US post-war stability efforts. However, it has long been considered one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, with various insurgent groups establishing a foothold there.
#Iraq facing biggest challenge since US troops left in 2011. Irony Mosul one of early successes in Iraq thanks to Petraeus & 101st Airborne.— Jon Williams (@WilliamsJon) June 10, 2014
Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, who is from Mosul, said at a press conference today that the city is entirely in insurgents' hands after the Iraqi Army fled, The Washington Post reports.
“When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” he said.
“Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis,” he said. “Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”
ISIS only launched its assault on the city Friday. The government and Army held their ground in much of the city until Monday, according to the Post.
Thousands more fled overnight, most of them seeking refuge in the nearby autonomous region of Kurdistan. Among them was the governor of Nineveh province, Atheel Nujaifi, who is the brother of the speaker of parliament. In a telephone call with the Al-Jazeera television network, he described a “massive collapse” of the Iraqi security forces.
As the Iraqi security forces unraveled, the insurgents advanced, rapidly seized control of key facilities in the city, including two television stations, two prisons and several police headquarters, according to Iraqi news reports. The Twitter account of the Nineveh province branch of ISIS claimed the group had seized large quantities of arms and ammunition from the fleeing security forces. It also said the prisoners at the facilities had been freed.
BBC reports that ISIS has been "informally controlling" parts of Nineveh Province for months.
News reports trickling out of Mosul point to the release of thousands of prisoners, many of them likely imprisoned insurgents.
The takeover of the city has stoked concerns about the seizure of weapons and equipment at police stations and military bases around the city. The Washington Post reports that, according to the Twitter account of the Nineveh Province branch of ISIS, the group captured arms and ammunition. There were reports that ISIS seized military helicopters.