Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their weapons and fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, as Sunni militants freed hundreds of prisoners and seized military bases, police stations, banks, the airport and the provincial governor’s headquarters. The insurgent attacks were among the most audacious assaults on the Iraqi government since the American military withdrawal more than two years ago.
The rout in Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city after Baghdad, was breathtaking in its speed, and appeared to take officials by surprise, not to mention residents. A major humiliation for the government forces in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated areas, the defeat also reflected the stamina of a broader Sunni insurgency that has been growing with the war in neighboring Syria.
Mosul was the last major urban area of Iraq to be pacified by American troops before they left, and the violence there threatened to broaden into the adjacent autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which has its own armed forces, the peshmerga.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered a state of emergency for the entire country.
By midday on Tuesday, militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one of the strongest extremist groups, were in control of much of central and southern Mosul, according to witnesses. Local officials claimed that many of the fighters were jihadists who had swept in from the porous border with Syria, who have increasingly operated with impunity in that region even as President Bashar al-Assad has reclaimed ground lost to the insurgents elsewhere in Syria.
As hundreds of families fled Mosul, the bodies of slain soldiers, police officers and civilians were seen lying in streets. “They took control of everything, and they are everywhere,” said one soldier who fled the city, and gave only his first name, Haidar.
An Agence France-Presse journalist based in Mosul, seeking to flee the city with his family, reported shuttered shops, at least one police station set afire, many vehicles of the security forces abandoned or burned, and hundreds of residents, escaping in overloaded cars or on foot, carrying whatever they could.
Others reported that the were militants collecting military equipment abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi forces, much of it American-made.
Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV, a Dubai-based Arab satellite television network, posted on her Twitter account a photograph of what she described as a pair of Humvees that had already been driven into Syria.
The Mosul assault came in a week when Maliki’s government has been trying to beat back a surging militant offensive concentrated in central and northern Iraq and carried out by hundreds of well-armed fighters roaming the country in pickup trucks, seemingly able to strike at will.
In Mosul, along with the cities of Samarra and Ramadi, the militants have stormed police stations, government offices and even a university.
With the fighting on Tuesday, the government faced the possibility of losing another major Iraqi city to extremists whose stated goals include erasing the border with Syria and establishing an Islamic state that transcends both.
With its soldiers on the run, the Iraq government appeared to face a deep challenge in regaining control of Mosul, a stronghold for extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda and a hub of financing for militants.
The army responded to the rout on Tuesday by bombing at least one military base that had been captured by the militants, but there was no immediate sign of a broader offensive to reclaim the city.