Iraqi Special Forces in Mosul. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s troubled government lost its grip on the country’s second-largest city, Mosul in the northwest, after radical Islamic militants made huge advances on Tuesday and seized control of key positions such as the airport and municipality.
Thousands of militants from the al-Qaida splinter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were roaming freely in the city’s streets in their heavily-armed vehicles, according to witnesses and government officials.
News of Mosul’s fall to militants caused panic and fear among the largely Sunni-Arab population of Nineveh province.
Kurdish government officials tell Rudaw that as many as 150,000 people, including Governor Athil al-Nujaifi, have already fled to safer parts of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region.
"We will never allow for Mosul to remain under the control of the terrorists," vowed Prime Minister Nouri Maliki at a press conference in Baghdad.
The embattled prime minister, who is opposed by the country’s Sunnis, Kurds and many of his fellow Shiite parties, urged “everyone who can carry a gun" to start resisting against "terrorists."
But in Mosul, more anger was vented at Maliki’s government than at the vicious militants, whose rapid advances in the city have raised questions about the competence of an army long supported and trained by the United States.
"The army quickly retreated against a simple force such as ISIS, leaving all their tanks and heavy artillery for the militants," Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, told Rudaw by phone.
"It's painful that I had to leave Mosul, but there was not one single Iraqi soldier available to defend me there," he added.
Pictures of a helicopter that the militants say they seized from the government appeared on a Twitter account for the ISIS. Photographs of their Islamic flag flying over government buildings and military vehicles also appeared on social media websites.
Last week, the United States stepped up its military assistance to Iraq by delivering its first F-16 fighter jet, with 35 more to come.
But experts doubt such advanced weaponry is what Iraq needs to combat the insurgents in street fighting.
"F-16s will not help Iraq fight its insurgency war," said Aso Mohammed, an Iraq analyst with the Rudaw News Network. "The type of war (ISIS is fighting) does not have much to do about technological superiority. The Iraqi military should be trained in fighting insurgencies.”
A spokesperson for the ISIS, identifying himself as Abu Omer, told Rudaw TV by phone from Mosul airport that the group’s actions were justified because of the “injustice" done to Iraqis.
"We will only fight those who attack us," he said.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials voiced fears that the militants might seize control of major oilfields in the province. The Kurdish government has tightened security around an oilfield operated by ExxonMobil in Baashiqa, a town that falls within “disputed territories” claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Nineveh is also home to a large Christian minority.
In the predominately-Christian town of Hamdaniya, police chief Mohammed Rashid voiced fears there were not enough Iraqi forces in the area to defend against possible attacks by the militants, who have previously made Christians a primary target.
"If they come, they can control Hamdaniya in five minutes," Rashid warned.
Over the past three days, ISIS militants have spread into other provinces as well. On Monday, they launched two deadly attacks against the headquarters of Kurdish parties in Diyalah province, killing scores.
The resurgence of terrorists in Mosul comes more than a month after Iraq's parliamentary elections, in which Maliki’s party won the largest votes, but not enough to form a government alone. The embattled prime minister is seeking a third term.
As Iraqi politics remains deadlocked, more than 500 people -- mostly civilians -- died in May alone.