Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is offering weapons to civilians willing to take on Islamist militants who captured Iraq’s second-largest city on Tuesday.
Jihadi rebels seized control of most of Mosul early Tuesday, reflecting the growing threat posed by the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group once closely linked to Al Qaeda that’s been fighting to establish hardline Islamic law in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency and vowed not to let the area succumb “under the shadows of terror and terrorists.”
The BBC reported that hundreds of armed insurgents took control of government offices, police stations, the army headquarters, the prison and the airport in Mosul as government troops tossed their uniforms and fled their posts.
“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,” Iraq’s parliament speaker Osama Nujaifi told reporters. “Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis,” he said, according to the Washington Post.
A statement from the prime minister broadcast on state television offered to distribute weapons to civilians, saying the government had “created a special crisis cell to follow up on the process of volunteering and equipping and arming.”
The cabinet “praises the willingness of the citizens and the sons of the tribes to volunteer and carry weapons … to defend the homeland and defeat terrorism,” Maliki said, according to the Middle East news site Al Arabiya.
“Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region,” Nujaifi said, appealing for outside help to reign in the rebels. The takeover of Mosul, the capital of northern Iraq, follows the insurgent capture earlier this year of Fallujah.
The Iraqi government also decided to “restructure and reorganize” its military in an effort to meet the growing insurgent challenge despite government forces being armed by the U.S. government.
An estimated 150,000 have fled the latest bout of fighting. The crush of civilians trying to get out was captured dramatically in this photograph:
The Washington Post described the militant takeover of the major Iraqi city as “striking and suggests the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces are even more vulnerable than had previously been thought.”
The jihadis’ seizure of the airport was particularly symbolic as it had been used by the U.S. military in Iraq. The parliament speaker confirmed to reporters Tuesday that the airport and all aircraft within it were captured.
Charles Lister, who follows Middle Eastern insurgent groups at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, told the Washington Post that many of the weapons ISIL captured were likely to be American.
“Washington will be questioning how to move forward in terms of supporting the Iraqi army in its fight against terrorism,” Lister said. “Every time [ISIL] 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.”
The BBC reported that the ISIL has for months been imposing its rule on large swaths of the Nineveh province, including levying of protection taxes and fees for transporting goods.