Militants overrun most of major Iraqi city

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Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

A Kurdish policeman stands guard while refugees from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

In this Monday, June 9, 2014 image taken from video obtained from the Iraqi Military, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, armed Iraqi soldiers take their positions during clashes with militants in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Insurgents on Tuesday pressed their efforts to seize effective control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday after Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts and militants overran the provincial government headquarters and other key buildings, dealing a serious blow to Baghdad’s attempts to tame a widening insurgency in the country. (AP Photo/Iraqi Military via AP video)

A Kurdish policeman stands guard while refugees fleeing Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Irbil, Iraq, 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Baghdad, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday, driving security forces from their posts and seizing the provincial government headquarters, security bases and other key buildings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pressed parliament to declare a state of emergency. (AP Photo)

In this Monday, June 9, 2014 image taken from video obtained from the Iraqi Military, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, an Iraqi army tank fires towards militants during clashes in in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. Insurgents on Tuesday pressed their efforts to seize effective control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on Tuesday after Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts and militants overran the provincial government headquarters and other key buildings, dealing a serious blow to Baghdad’s attempts to tame a widening insurgency in the country. (AP Photo/Iraqi Military via AP video)

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BAGHDAD (AP) — 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.”

Regaining Mosul poses a daunting challenge for the Shiite prime minister. The city of about 1.4 milliion has a Sunni Muslim majority and many in the community are already deeply embittered against his Shiite-led government. During the nearly nine-year American presence in the country, Mosul was a major stronghold for al-Qaida. U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out repeated offensives there, regaining a semblance of control but never routing the insurgents entirely.

“It’s going to be difficult to reconstitute the forces to clear and hold the city,” Knights said. “There aren’t a lot of spare forces around Iraq.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest deplored what he called the “despicable” acts of violence against civilians in Mosul. He said Washington is committed to its partnership with Baghdad but is urging the government to take steps to be more inclusive of all Iraqis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks across Iraq in recent days “that have killed and wounded scores of civilians.” He urged all political leaders “to show national unity against the threats facing Iraq, which can only be addressed on the basis of the constitution and within the democratic political process,” according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Insurgents and Iraqi troops have been fighting

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