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Jihadists capture Iraq's Nineveh province

Suspected jihadists on Tuesday seized Iraq's entire northern province of Nineveh and its capital Mosul, the country's second-largest city, in a major blow to authorities, who appear incapable of stopping militant advances.

MOSUL, Iraq: Jihadists seized Iraq's second city of Mosul and its surrounding province on Tuesday, in a major blow to a government apparently incapable of stopping militant advances.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded by asking parliament to declare a state of emergency and announcing that the government would arm citizens to fight the militants.

"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 south towards neighbouring Salaheddin province.

An army brigadier general said hundreds of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched an all-out assault on the security forces late on Monday.

An interior ministry official said Mosul "is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants."

He said some soldiers and police took off their uniforms and fled the city, where the security forces have been involved in deadly clashes with the militants since Friday.

The militants announced over loudspeakers that they had "come to liberate" the city of some two million people and that "they would fight only those who fight them," the official added.

Troops first pulled back from the east of the city, regrouping in the west before pulling out altogether, 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 force vehicles had been burned or abandoned.

The journalist saw hundreds of families leaving Mosul. Some were on foot, carrying what they could, others in vehicles with their belongings piled on the roofs.

One east Mosul resident said his neighbourhood had been taken by the militants in just an hour of 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.

The Turkish consulate in Mosul said ISIL fighters had captured 28 Turkish truck drivers as they were unloading a cargo of fuel oil from the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun.

A foreign ministry official said Ankara was hoping that the drivers would be released once the oil had been unloaded at a power station in Mosul.

"But we don't know if the situation in the city will make it possible or if ISIL will change their mind," the official added.

Maliki said the cabinet had decided to arm citizens to fight the militants.

It has "created a special crisis cell to follow up on the process of volunteering and equipping and arming", he said in televised remarks.

Maliki said the cabinet also decided to reorganise the security forces, and to ask parliament to announce a state of emergency.

State television later reported that parliament had received a joint request from Maliki and the president's office to declare a state of emergency -- the procedure laid down in the constitution.

Predominantly Sunni Muslim Nineveh province has long been a militant stronghold and one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq.

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 is the second city to fall from government control this year. Militants and allied tribesmen also control Fallujah, west of the capital.

Violence struck other areas of Iraq on Tuesday.

In Baquba, north of Baghdad, two bombs killed 20 people near a funeral procession for a teacher who was shot dead the night before.

In the capital, nine people died in 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.

Militants seized swathes of the city of Samarra for hours before being driven out in heavy fighting and took hundreds of hostages at a university in Ramadi.

Violence is running at its highest levels since 2006-2007, when tens of thousands were killed in sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shiite 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 Shiite-led government has also been a major factor.