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.
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’ 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’ growing presence.
Al-Tamimi predicted that the victory in Iraq would discourage those moderate forces in Syria who’ve been battling ISIS since January.
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.