By Mitchell Prothero and Hannah Allam, McClatchy Foreign Staff
ISTANBUL — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged his parliament Tuesday to declare a nationwide state of emergency after militants from an al-Qaida offshoot seized control of a large swath of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in a humiliating sequence of events that saw Iraq’s U.S.-trained security forces abandon their posts and weapons and flee.
Witnesses’ accounts from Iraq said insurgents belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had taken control of military bases, government offices and television stations and had released thousands of prisoners from local jails. There were reports that the group also had captured Iraqi assault helicopters, though that wasn’t immediately confirmed.
Mosul’s fall into chaos marked the most significant military victory yet for ISIS, which has been pushing for more than a year to establish an Islamic state in western Iraq and eastern Syria. If the capture of Mosul — a city of 2 million people — stands, ISIS would become unquestionably the most significant jihadist organization in the world, eclipsing core al Qaida, to which ISIS once pledged allegiance but that in recent months has become its bitter rival.
“Where has any other jihadi group achieved this level of success in terms of territorial control and the workings of an actual state?” asked Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst of Syrian and Iraqi extremist groups for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
Al-Tamimi said it was now clear that ISIS no longer could be considered merely an insurgent group, but a state of its own, with police forces, Islamic court systems and the ability to provide services such as electricity and trash pickup. Its alliances with conservative tribes in Iraq’s Nineveh and Anbar provinces and Syria’s Raqqa province are evidence that it’s gone far beyond al-Qaida’s power and influence.
“There’s never been anything like it,” al-Tamimi said.
ISIS’s sudden prominence presents a conundrum for U.S. policymakers, not just in Iraq — where the group quickly routed American-trained forces and now challenges the hold of an Iraqi government the United States helped install — but also in Syria, where the U.S. has been encouraging so-called moderate rebel groups to contest ISIS’s growing presence.
Al-Tamimi predicted that the victory in Iraq would discourage those moderate forces in Syria who’ve been battling ISIS since January and would allow ISIS to consolidate control in Syria’s Deir el Zour province.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called events in Mosul “extremely serious” and said the U.S. would provide “all appropriate assistance” to the Iraqi government, but she didn’t specify what such emergency aid would entail. The United States has declared ISIS an international terrorist organization.
The group’s surge is also likely to prove troubling to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, as well as to Turkey, which has recently come to the realization that the civil war to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad has allowed radical Islamists to thrive along the Turkish-Syrian border.
The speed with which ISIS took control of Mosul was breathtaking. It began with what the Iraqi government initially dismissed as a hit-and-run operation, then turned into a frontal assault on key military bases and government centers by hundreds of fighters backed by heavy weapons.
After overrunning the government’s key symbols of authority late Monday night, the militants quickly moved to consolidate control over military bases filled with advanced American weaponry, including dozens of armored vehicles, artillery and, reportedly, attack helicopters.
Iraqi television showed footage of Iraqi military uniforms abandoned by the side of the road as well as huge traffic jams of residents attempting to flee the fighting — and apparent jihadist occupation — into nearby Kurdish-controlled areas thought to be safe for now.
Kurdish officials in nearby Irbil said hundreds of thousands of people were expected to flee into that area and that the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semiautonomous body that administers the ethnic Kurd enclave, had mobilized its security forces to prepare for fighting with militants along Iraq’s major highway linking Mosul to the south.
Sabaa al-Barzani, a security official from Irbil, said Kurdish units of the Iraqi army were being moved to the confront the militants and that the Kurds’ famed peshmerga militia had already been deployed.
“We have at least 200,000 people fleeing the terrorists from Mosul and the roads are full,” he said by telephone. “We’re pushing the peshmerga into position to confront any advance and reinforcing the Kurdish neighborhoods in (eastern) Mosul. It’s a disaster. We’re going to have to fight alone because the Arab army and police units have fled.”
Atheel al-Nujafi, the governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, initially called on Mosul residents to form committees to defend the city, but he was forced to flee after hundreds of militants assaulted his office complex late Monday night.
Southern, central and western Mosul appeared to be entirely in the hands of ISIS by Tuesday’s end. The Reuters news agency quoted three Iraqi military officers as saying militants had advanced to within two miles of the main military operations center for northern Iraq, at Mosul’s international airport on the outskirts of the city. ISIS claimed that the airport and the military camp had fallen.
The loss of the airport and command post, if confirmed, would greatly complicate the central government’s ability to mount a counterattack. Without an air facility, forces deployed from Baghdad would be forced to drive for hours along highways through areas that are often the scene of ISIS attacks on Iraqi government forces.
Unconfirmed reports from ISIS sources claimed the group also had taken control of the main highway linking Mosul with Kirkuk, the next closest city held by the central government, where reports were circulating that ISIS fighters were besieging another government military facility Tuesday night.
Twitter accounts associated with ISIS released footage of captured equipment, some of which already had been sent to support its fighters in neighboring Syria. One series of photographs posted online showed a Chechen ISIS commander, Omar Shishani, examining an apparently brand-new armored American Humvee. The date the photo was taken couldn’t be immediately confirmed but was consistent with claims that large amounts of American equipment had been seized.
The events unfolding in northern Iraq came as ISIS appeared to be on the verge of consolidating its positions in Syria’s Raqqa province as well as in Deir el Zour province, where it’s besieging the capital, also called Deir el Zour, and the city of Abu Kamal, which controls large oil fields as well as a border crossing to Iraq’s Anbar province. Those areas currently are controlled by al Qaida’s official franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front, which has been an odds with ISIS over leadership and other issues for the past year.
According to the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 600 fighters on both sides have been killed in recent fighting in Deir el Zour province, along with hundreds of civilians. More than 150,000 people have fled the area because of the sustained fighting.
Al-Tamimi, the Middle East Forum analyst, said ISIS’s victory was likely to persuade tribes in Syria, and perhaps even some Nusra commanders, that an ISIS win was inevitable in Deir el Zour.
The events in Mosul will “ramp up efforts to take Deir el Zour,” he said.
In Iraq, news of the Mosul takeover spread quickly via phone conversations and social media, fueling panic as rumor and fact became indistinguishable in the fast-moving crisis.
Iraqis reached by telephone worried that the militants, who already have custody of a major dam in Fallujah, had seized the Mosul Dam, a development that would effectively give them control of the country’s water supply.
A resident of Tikrit, the central Iraqi city that was Saddam Hussein’s hometown, said government workers at the nearby Bayji refinery, Iraq’s largest, were handing over their official vehicles to administrators for fear they’d be killed for them if militants made it into the area.
In the southern holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, locals cringed at planes flying overhead because of worries that militants had seized aircraft and might try to slam them into holy sites such as the Imam Ali shrine.
Zaid Mohammed, 27, a teacher in Mosul who spoke to McClatchy by phone from the besieged city, said clashes that had erupted Thursday night between unknown gunmen and the army and national police units foreshadowed the ISIS push.
“We used to see gunmen attack and then withdraw. This time, they weren’t withdrawing. This time, they were standing their ground,” he said.
After a lull Friday, he said, the situation had “exploded” Saturday and he and other residents watched in astonishment as Iraqi forces swapped their uniforms for tracksuits and abandoned their posts, “neighborhood by neighborhood.”
“I asked one soldier I know why he was leaving,” Mohammed said. “He told me, ‘We came here for salaries, not to die.’ “
Mohammed said he’d ventured outside Tuesday and seen militants — wearing ordinary street clothes and not brandishing black jihadist flags — patrolling the streets in apparently captured Humvees, police vehicles and SWAT cars.
Speaking in what Mohammed called “Mosul village” accents, the militants used loudspeakers to tell soldiers that they’d be safe if they laid down their weapons and deserted. He said he couldn’t ascertain the ideology of the fighters; there are reports that former followers of Saddam, tribesmen and other armed groups had joined in the fight because of long-standing grievances with the Maliki administration’s marginalization of Sunni Muslims.
“Whoever this is doing the fighting is different from those we saw in 2005, 2006 and 2007,” Mohammed said. “Back then, they would kill soldiers whether they surrendered or not.”
He said the militants also appeared to be taking pains to portray themselves to locals as their protectors, by opening roads to allow families to flee to the north and by assigning guards to banks, clinics and other public facilities in order to prevent the looting that’s occurred in previous crises.
“They opened the roads, removed checkpoints and moved concrete slabs, and now the roads are open. Mosul is now like 2003; no more roadblocks,” Mohammed said. “They lifted the curfew, and after that so many families started to leave toward Kurdistan. People are leaving; they’re afraid of the army randomly shelling Mosul like they do in Fallujah.”