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Iraq's second largest city falls to terrorists

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Thousands flee Mosul as militants overtake Iraq's second-largest city on Tuesday. (Source: Radio Free Europe/CNN) Thousands flee Mosul as militants overtake Iraq's second-largest city on Tuesday. (Source: Radio Free Europe/CNN)

DOHUK PROVINCE, IRAQ (Radio Free Europe/CNN) - Militants seized control of the airport, TV stations and the governor's offices in Iraq's second-largest city as police and soldiers ran away from their posts in Mosul on Tuesday, a stunning collapse of the security forces that has raised questions about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ability to hold the country together.

In perhaps a sign of just how serious the threat is to Iraq's stability, al-Maliki took to the airwaves to call on all men to volunteer to fight, promising to provide weapons and equipment.

"We will not allow for the remainder of the province and the city to fall," he said in a live broadcast carried on Iraqi state television.

The militants are believed to be members of the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida splinter group also known by its acronym ISIS. Many foreign fighters are believed to be among their number, senior police officials said.

The fighting in Mosul has left hundreds dead and forced tens of thousands to flee in vehicles or on foot - with some carrying only what they could in plastic bags. There were bottlenecks at checkpoints as people tried to get to safety in nearby Erbil.

The fighting that began five days ago culminated with the militants taking control of security checkpoints, military bases and a prison, where they freed up to 1,000 prisoners, authorities said.

A Reuters journalist on the ground in Mosul reported seeing policemen take off their uniforms and drop their weapons.

The bodies, some mutilated, of members of Iraqi security forces littered the streets, the journalist reported.

"We can't beat them. We can't. They are well trained in street fighting, and we're not. We need a whole army to drive them out of Mosul," one officer, whose identity was withheld, told Reuters.

A journalist with Agence France-Presse, who was fleeing the city with his family, reported security forces had abandoned vehicles and a police station was set on fire.

Al-Maliki urged parliament to declare a state of emergency.

"This requires all efforts, both civilian and official, to confront this ferocious attack that harms all Iraqis, from a deteriorating security situation to a humanitarian crisis," he said in a live television broadcast that aired on Iraqi state television.

Militant stronghold

Political and sectarian violence have wracked Iraq for months, often pitting minority Sunnis against majority Shiite Muslims, who came to dominate the government after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.

Tensions are fueled by widespread discontent among the Sunnis, who say they are marginalized by the Shiite-led government and unfairly targeted by heavy-handed security tactics.

The latest violence in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city with a population of about 1.6 million, will surely be a blow to the Shiite-dominated central government, which is already struggling to contain an insurgency in central Anbar province.

Nearly 500,000 people are estimated to have been displaced this year in fighting, primarily in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, the United Nations refugee agency said last week. That number is expected to climb as more and more people flee Mosul.

Mosul, about 560 kilometers (350 miles) northwest of the capital, Baghdad, was once called the last stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq by the U.S. military, and at the height of the Iraq war, it was considered one of the main entry points for foreign fighters coming into the country by way of Syria.

The security forces, particularly police, have not always been trusted in Mosul. In 2004, thousands of police officers fled their posts amid the Sunni insurgency, leaving U.S. and Kurdish forces to fight to keep control of the city.

Where are the police?

Jala Abdulrahman fled with his wife, three children and other family members after militants took control of his neighborhood.

"Gunmen are everywhere in my neighborhood," he said. "Where are the Iraqi army and police? Where are the politicians that we trusted and voted for?"

By late Tuesday, Abdulrahman and his family were among hundreds waiting at a checkpoint on the road between Mosul and the Erbil, the capital of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.

Um Ahmed decided to drive out of Mosul at dawn with three daughters and two sons. Her husband was killed by gunmen outside of a mosque in Mosul a few years ago. She said she wasn't going to take chances with her children.

"I left everything behind, and I don't know how long it will take to return back to our home" she said.

The renewed fighting in Mosul has drawn international condemnation, including from Turkey after reports that militants abducted 28 Turkish truck drivers hauling fuel.

The drivers were en route from Iskenderun, Turkey, to an electrical plant outside of Mosul. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, when the drivers arrived at the plant, ISIS fighters grabbed them.

Fighting has been reported near the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, the ministry said.

The United Nations said 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008, with more than 8,800 people killed, most of them civilians.

Speaker points finger at security forces

Earlier, the speaker of Iraq's parliament said that a "foreign invasion" of the country was under way by "terrorist groups" and that the northern province of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, was under "total occupation."

Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad, Osama al-Nujaifi appeared to point the finger at the central government, accusing security forces of abandoning Mosul when the fighting began.

Al-Nujaifi said security forces "abandoned their weapons, their tanks and their bases and left them to terrorist groups, even Mosul airport." He also said gunmen had taken over ammunition storage facilities.

The speaker, whose brother Atheel al-Nujaifi is the governor of Nineveh province, said the central government had been warned over the past few weeks that militant groups were gathering but had taken no preventive action.

"It will not stop at the borders of Nineveh but will reach all of Iraq," he said.

Also criticizing the central government was Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, who blamed security forces for allowing militants to take control of portions of Mosul.

"Over the last two days, we tried extremely hard to establish cooperation with the Iraqi security forces in order to protect the city of Mosul. Tragically, Baghdad adopted a position which has prevented the establishment of this cooperation," he said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, at least 31 people were killed and 28 others injured Tuesday when a series of roadside bombs detonated at a cemetery on the outskirts of the central city of Baquba, according to police officials.

Copyright 2014 Radio Free Europe via CNN. All rights reserved.

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