Sunni militants overran police stations, government buildings and banks in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, freeing prisoners and chasing away Iraqi soldiers.
The brazen attack seemed to take governmental officials by surprise. Local residents said the fighters, believed to be from the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, had come from the border with Syria. Hundreds of families had fled Mosul by Tuesday night.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to declare a state of emergency, saying the government would not allow the area to fall “under the shadows of terror and terrorists.”
Earlier this year, the same al-Qaida offshoot took over Fallujah in central Iraq. Iraqi security forces have been struggling for months to regain the territory from the militants without causing massive civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.
Mosul has been described as an even more strategic city, since it is a major export route for Iraqi oil and a gateway to Syria.