Mosul, Iraq -
Jihadists on Tuesday seized Iraq's northern province of Nineveh, whose capital Mosul is the country's second-largest city, in a major blow to a government apparently incapable of stopping militant advances.
“All of Nineveh province fell into the hands of militants,” parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi told journalists in Baghdad, adding that the gunmen were heading towards Nineveh's neighbouring province of Salaheddin, on the road to the capital.
An army brigadier general told AFP clashes with hundreds of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began late Monday.
An interior ministry official earlier said Mosul “is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants” and that some soldiers and police had fled after removing their uniforms.
He said they announced over loudspeakers that they had “come to liberate” the city of an estimated two million people and that “they would only fight those who fight them.”
Military units first withdrew from the city's east, heading to its west, and then began leaving the city, along with thousands of residents, he said.
An AFP journalist, himself fleeing the city with his family, said shops were closed, a police station had been set ablaze and that numerous security forces vehicles had either been burned or abandoned.
The journalist saw hundreds of families leaving Mosul. Some were on foot, carrying their belongings, and others in vehicles with goods piled on the roofs.
One east Mosul resident said his neighbourhood had been taken by the militants in just an hour, amid heavy gunfire.
The assailants seized the provincial government headquarters and the Nineveh Operations Command as well as the airport, the general said.
They also freed hundreds of prisoners from three jails.
Meanwhile, the Turkish consulate in Mosul confirmed reports that 28 Turkish truck drivers, carrying diesel from the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun to Mosul, had been abducted by ISIL militants.
No further details were immediately available.
Predominantly Sunni Muslim Nineveh has long been a militant stronghold and one of the most dangerous areas in the country.
ISIL, the most powerful militant group in Iraq, is also a key force in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria. In April, it launched a new campaign in Syria's Deir Ezzor province, which borders Nineveh, aimed at carving out an Islamic state along the frontier.
Mosul, 350 kilometres north of Baghdad, is the second city after Fallujah, west of Baghdad, that the government has lost this year.
Some officials blamed ISIL for the Mosul takeover, but its exact role in the fighting was not immediately clear.
Violence also struck other areas of Iraq on Tuesday.
In Baquba, two bombs exploded and killed 20 people near a funeral procession for a teacher who was shot dead the night before, while three more died in Baghdad attacks.
Gunmen have launched major operations in Nineveh, Salaheddin, Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad provinces since Thursday, killing scores of people and highlighting both their long reach and the weakness of security forces.
Travelling in dozens of vehicles, some mounted with anti-aircraft guns, they attacked the city of Samarra, south of Mosul, and occupied several areas on Thursday.
They were only dislodged after heavy house-to-house fighting and helicopter strikes.
On Friday, heavy fighting between security forces and militants broke out in Mosul itself, killing well over 100 people in two days.
On Saturday, militants assaulted a university in the city of Ramadi, taking hundreds of hostages, while bombings later that day in Baghdad killed at least 25 people.
And bombings hit towns in Diyala and Salaheddin provinces on Sunday and Monday, killing dozens more.
Mosul is the second city the authorities have lost this year, after anti-government fighters took over Fallujah, just a short drive from Baghdad, in early January.
Violence is running at its highest levels since 2006-2007, when tens of thousands were killed in sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shi'a majority and Sunni Arab minority.
Officials blame external factors for the rising bloodshed, particularly the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
But analysts say widespread Sunni Arab anger with the Shi'a-led government has also been a major factor. - Sapa-AFP