BAGHDAD — In a stunning assault that exposed Iraq’s eroding central authority, al-Qaida-inspired militants overran much of Mosul on Tuesday, seizing government buildings, pushing out security forces and capturing military vehicles as thousands of residents fled the second-largest city.
The rampage by the black banner-waving insurgents was a heavy defeat for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to hold onto power, and highlighted the growing strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group has been advancing in both Iraq and neighboring Syria, capturing territory in a campaign to set up a militant enclave straddling the border.
There were no immediate estimates on how many people were killed in the assault, a stark reminder of the reversals in Iraq since U.S. forces left in late 2011.
Earlier this year, Islamic State fighters took control of Fallujah, and government forces have been unable to take it back.
Mosul is a much bigger, more strategic prize. The city and surrounding Ninevah province, which is on the doorstep of Iraq’s relatively prosperous Kurdish region, are a major export route for Iraqi oil and a gateway to Syria.
“This isn’t Fallujah. This isn’t a place you can just cordon off and forget about,” said Michael Knights, a regional security analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s essential to Iraq.”
Al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency that would grant him greater powers, saying the public and government must unite “to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi.” Legal experts said these powers could include imposing curfews, restricting public movements and censoring the media.
State TV said lawmakers would convene Thursday. Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni from Mosul, called the rout “a disaster by any standard.”