As soon as they realised that Mosul was slipping out of government control, one of Iraq’s biggest Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, ordered their representatives in the city to collect all of the important documents in their offices and leave town.
The Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, is the most popular and powerful party in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, which shares a border with Ninawa, the Iraqi state that Sunni Muslim extremists have overrun, over the past few days.
And multi-ethnic Ninawa is an important province for the Iraqi Kurdish. There are several parts of it that they claim belong to their own province and which are heavily populated by Iraqi Kurds; often these “disputed areas”, as they are known, are also controlled by Iraqi Kurdish military rather than the Iraqi Army loyal to Baghdad. Hence the KDP’s close relationship with nearby Mosul.
The KDP’s headquarters are a few kilometres away from areas controlled by Iraqi Kurdish military and while Esmat Rajab, head of the KDP’s Mosul bureau, was packing up to leave, his party were attacked by extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Two of the soldiers with Rajab were injured but the Kurds managed to get out of the city and back to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, a province fiercely protected by Iraqi Kurdish military forces.
Rajab told NIQASH how they had managed to escape the besieged city as well as why he thought Iraqi army soldiers had simply given up and fled. He also shared his theory about why Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wanted Mosul to fall to ISIS.
NIQASH: Tell us how you got out of Mosul safely?
Esmat Rajab: By Monday, all of Mosul was under ISIS’ control. All of the political headquarters and the government buildings were empty and all employees and workers had left the premises. We stayed in our offices until around 3:30am at which stage the KDP leadership told us to collect important documents and leave the city. That took about an hour. Then we started walking down the street – the streets were quiet as everything was well under ISIS’ control by then. However it seems they were waiting to ambush us – two of our soldiers were wounded and our offices were set on fire.
NIQASH: Did you know that ISIS was going to attack Mosul?
Rajab: Yes we – and every other concerned authority – knew they were coming and which side of the city they would strike first: The side of town where all of the council buildings, important institutions and military headquarters are. ISIS knew that if they controlled that part of the city then they could claim to be in control of the city. But we thought that the Iraqi army and local police would remain on duty at the five bridges which connect the city and that they would basically fight ISIS from those locations, on the other side of the city. But we were wrong. The soldiers all left and they even opened the doors of the local prisons.
NIQASH: Why did they do that, in your opinion?
Rajab: Because this is not a national army. It is an army based on sectarian allegiances and it has never been loyal to this area – so why defend it?
[Note: Critics say the current Iraqi Army is now made up mostly of Shiite Muslim soldiers and leaders; there are not many Shiite Muslims living in this area, which is mainly home to Sunni Muslims, Iraqi Kurds and minorities like the Turkmen.]
NIQASH: Do you have any idea of how many of ISIS’ fighters were in Mosul?
Rajab: They’ve been arriving in the city in vehicles, and carrying heavy artillery, since June 5. Up until Saturday we think there were around 1,000 armed men in and around Mosul. If the army had resisted them there’s no way they would have been able to capture the whole city. It’s a big place and even with 10,000 fighters it would be tricky. But when the armed services structure collapsed, all the soldiers left. I believe that if the soldiers had stood their ground and stayed loyal it would have been very difficult for ISIS to capture the city, no matter how strong they were.
NIQASH: So what can you tell us about the local government in Ninawa now?
Rajab: The local government has fallen completely. All of its buildings are in ISIS’ hands.
NIQASH: Some media have reported that ISIS managed to get around US$420 million from banks in Mosul.
Rajab: I am not sure if that’s the right amount. But if there was money in the banks in Mosul, then ISIS certainly took it. All of the institutions in the city are under their control and they have also appointed a Wali [Arabic for custodian or guardian] to administer the city.
NIQASH: Any idea what happened to Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi? And what about the senior military commanders who were in Mosul?
Rajab: I was in touch with al-Nujaifi today. He is currently in Erbil. But nobody knows what happened to those commanders. We do know that Aboud Qanbar [the Iraqi Army's deputy chief of staff] and Mahdi al-Ghrawi [head of the Ninawa Operations Command] who were sent to confront ISIS in Mosul, managed to escape to Tall Kaif, one of the areas protected by the Iraqi Kurdish military.
NIQASH: Is it true that Iraqi Army soldiers were handing their weapons over to the Iraqi Kurdish military?
Rajab: The most important thing for those soldiers was to stay alive. They left everything behind: Weapons, clothes, vehicles, helicopters. And a lot of that stuff was left behind before they even got to where the Iraqi Kurdish military are deployed. Those who did get to the Iraqi Kurdish military with their equipment did hand it over – they wanted to do this rather than let their weapons fall into ISIS’ hands.
NIQASH: Why didn't the Iraqi Kurdish military do anything about ISIS?
Rajab: According to agreements reached with Baghdad and with local authorities, we cannot have any troops inside Mosul. Iraqi Kurdish forces are only posted in the disputed areas [Note: areas that Iraqi Kurdistan says belong to the Kurdish but which Baghdad says belong to them; mostly these areas have heavy deployments of Iraqi Kurdish military]. However Iraqi Kurdish forces are ready for any scenario.
NIQASH: Do you think the Iraqi Kurdish military will eventually be asked to help in this situation?
Rajab: The Iraqi Kurdish military are always ready to provide support, provided that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asks the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, personally to send troops. And this can only happen after serious coordination between all the concerned parties, including the military.
NIQASH: Prime Minister Al-Maliki has asked Iraq’s Parliament to declare a state of emergency throughout the country. Is that a good idea, do you think?
Rajab: I believe al-Maliki wanted Mosul to be captured by ISIS so that he could force Parliament in Baghdad to declare a state of emergency. Once that happens, he will be the only ruler of Iraq and he will have all authority. Mosul was under siege from ISIS for several days and he didn’t do one thing to stop it.
NIQASH: If ISIS manages to hold onto Mosul, doesn’t this make things a lot more dangerous for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Rajab: The danger that ISIS represents will certainly be more present. But this is a danger that threatens all Iraqis - ISIS doesn’t differentiate between Arabs, Kurds or anyone else. If they do manage to stay in Mosul, ISIS will certainly try and de-stabilize Iraqi Kurdistan. But the Iraqi Kurdish military are alert and they are ready for any confrontation.
NIQASH: And what about all of the people from Mosul and elsewhere in Ninawa who are desperately trying to get into Iraqi Kurdistan, and to safety?
Rajab: In central Mosul, there are estimated 1.7million inhabitants. More than half of these have left, many of them have found places to stay on the outskirts of the city. And many also went to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s very difficult to host such a lot of people in the different cities in Iraqi Kurdistan so the plan now is to build camps for them near Dohuk.
NIQASH: Do you think it is going to be difficult to bring Mosul back under government control?
Rajab: Before planning anything like the liberation of Mosul, the government in Baghdad – and especially Prime Minister al-Maliki – should apologize for this failure. And they must also rethink their policies toward other sections of the population in Iraq. It is only when this happens, that any plan to liberate Mosul, and other areas, can begin.