Mosul falls to militants, Iraqi forces flee northern city
An al Qaeda splinter group have seized control of the Iraqi city of Mosul, putting security forces to flight in a spectacular show of strength against the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government.
The capture of the northern city of 2 million by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Sunni Muslims waging sectarian war on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier - complements ISIL's grip on key western towns and followed four days of heavy fighting in Mosul and the border province of Nineveh around it.
The United States, which pulled out its troops two and a half years ago, pledged to help Iraqi leaders "push back against this aggression" as the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him extraordinary powers to tackle the crisis.
But the battle, for the time being, seemed to be over. Some police were discarding uniforms and weapons and fleeing a city where the black flag of ISIL now flew over government buildings.
"We have lost Mosul this morning," said a colonel at a local military command centre. "Army and police forces left their positions and ISIL 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 of them mutilated, littering the streets.
"We can't beat them. We can't," one officer told Reuters. "They are well trained in street fighting and we're not. We need a whole army to drive them out of Mosul.
"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 Falluja 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 ISIL and its allies consolidate control along the barely populated frontier with Syria, where they are fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shi'ite Iran.
A White House spokesman renewed US calls for Maliki to do more to address grievances among Iraqis, notably the once dominant Sunni minority. Many Sunnis feel disenfranchised and some have made common cause with foreign Islamist radicals, first against the US troops that overthrew Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 and now Shi'ite-led Iraqi forces.