Militants seize control of Mosul and its arms
SUNNI militants spilling over the border from Syria seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.
The Iraqi army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses.
The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and the provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) over public buildings.
The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.
"They took control of everything, and they are everywhere," said one soldier who fled the city, and gave only his first name, Haidar.
They also gained a windfall in arms, munitions and equipment abandoned by the soldiers as they fled - arms supplied by the United States and intended to give the troops an edge over the insurgents.
The militants then pressed south towards Baghdad and occupied facilities in the key oil-refining town of Baiji.
The swift advance by militants aligned with Isil represented a climactic moment on the long trajectory of Iraq's unravelling since the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011.
Critics have long warned that the US withdrawal of troops from Iraq, without leaving even a token force, would lead to an insurgent revival.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki ordered a state of emergency for the entire country and called on friendly governments for help, without mentioning the US specifically.
For more than six months, the militants have maintained control of Fallujah, in Iraq's Sunni-Arab Anbar province. The seizure of Mosul, a city of 1.4 million with a mix of ethnicities, sects and religions, is more ominous for the stability of Iraq.
"Isil will use cash reserves from Mosul's banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capacity," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director of consultancy Eurasia Group.
The chaos in Mosul also illustrated how the violence in Iraq has increasingly merged with the civil war in Syria, as extremists now operate on both sides of the porous border.
On Tuesday, local officials claimed that many of the fighters were jihadists who had come from the lawless frontier that divides Iraq and Syria, a region where they have increasingly operated with impunity.
Now, Mosul could become an even more important base for Isil as it pursues its stated goals of erasing the border with Syria and establishing an Islamic state that transcends both.
An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have already fled Mosul and the surrounding province, the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday.
Critics say the failure of Mr Maliki - a Shi'ite Muslim in power for eight years - to address grievances among the once-dominant Sunni minority has led to a rise in Sunni militancy.