Iraq police: Militant gunmen free up to 1,000 in Mosul prison break
(CNN) — Hundreds of gunmen took control of key portions of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, freeing up to 1,000 inmates from the central prison, senior police officials said.
Authorities said the militants were also in control of the Mosul airport, local TV stations and the governor's offices.
The gunmen are believed to be members of the Syria-based extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an al Qaeda splinter group also known by its acronym ISIS.
Many foreign fighters are believed to be among their number, senior police officials said.
The speaker of Iraq's parliament said Tuesday 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 claimed 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 preventative action.
"The presence of these terrorists in the second biggest province in Iraq threatens not only the security and unity of Iraq but all of the Mideast region and neighboring countries," he said.
"It will not stop at the borders of Nineveh but will reach all of Iraq."
The violence in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city about 420 kilometers (260 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad, will surely be a blow to the central authorities, who already are struggling to contain an insurgency in central Anbar province.
The northern city already was considered one of Iraq's most dangerous because of al Qaeda-linked groups active there.
Iraqi security forces said Saturday that they had killed more than 50 ISIS fighters in clashes in the west of Mosul.
Iraq has been beset with political and sectarian violence for months, often pitting Sunnis -- a minority in Iraq -- against 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 United Nations said 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008, with more than 8,800 people killed, most of them civilians.
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.