BAGHDAD - Islamic militants overran parts of Iraq's second-largest city, 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 asked parliament to declare a state of emergency.
The battle for Mosul was a serious blow to Baghdad's attempts to tame a widening insurgency by a breakaway al-Qaida group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Earlier this year, the group took over another Iraqi city, Fallujah, in the west of the country, and government forces have been unable to take it back after months of fighting.
In a nationally televised press conference, al-Maliki asked parliament to convene an urgent session to declare a state of emergency. "Iraqi is undergoing a difficult stage," he said, acknowledging that militants had taken control of "vital areas in Mosul," and saying the public and government must unite "to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi."
Under the constitution, parliament can declare a 30-day state of emergency on a two-thirds vote by its members, granting the prime minister the necessary powers to run the country.
The insurgents took control of Mosul's government complex for northern Ninevah province -- a key symbol of state authority -- late Monday after days of fighting in the city, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. On Tuesday, Mosul residents said the militants appeared to be in control of several parts of the city, raising the black banners that are the emblem of the Islamic State. The residents spoke to The Associated Press by telephone on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
The gunmen overran police stations and several prisons, setting free detainees who were seen running in the streets in their yellow-jumpsuits, the residents said.
The fighters also seized helicopters at Mosul airport and seized weapons depots, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi -- a Sunni from Mosul -- said in a televised address. South of Mosul, several villages and a military air base around the town of Shurqat, in Salahuddin province, also fell to militants, al-Nujaifi said.
"What happened is a disaster by any standard," he said. "The presence of these terrorist groups in this vast province ... threatens not just the security and the unity of Iraq, but the whole Middle East."
Mosul -- with its surrounding Ninevah province -- is a key strategic area, a gateway to neighboring Syria, where Islamic State has also grabbed swaths of territory. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been behind a wave of violence in Iraq, claiming to be the champion for Iraq's large and disaffected Sunni minority against the Shiite-led government, and it is also considered one of the most ruthless rebel forces fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in Syria.
Umm Karam, a government employee who lives about two kilometers (just over a mile) from the provincial headquarters, said her family decided to flee the city early on Tuesday after hearing about the government building's fall.
"The situation is chaotic inside the city and there is nobody to help us," the Christian mother of two said, using a nickname out of concern for her safety. "We are afraid ... There is no police or army in Mosul."
Another elderly resident, speaking by phone after she and her family fled the city on foot to a nearby village Tuesday, said the city was without electricity and water.