The rumours started last week and as more soldiers and security personnel are interviewed, those rumours are slowly but surely being confirmed: Soldiers, police and other security forces in Mosul, the first city taken over by Sunni Muslim extremists, did not desert – they were ordered to withdraw.
Prior to last week’s extremist take over of the northern province of Ninawa, a number of different military and security brigades were deployed in the province. Most of the these were stationed in the city of Mosul, the provincial capital which sits on the Tigris River and boasts a population of around 1.8 million, mostly Sunni Muslims.
Basically the city, which is known as a base for Sunni Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda and their mafia-style practices, was dominated by soldiers, with a checkpoint on every other corner; one resident has described it as like living on a military base. Estimates of the number of government forces in Ninawa average out at around 60,000 men.
Which means they vastly outnumbered the initial incursion by fighters from the extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – the original force has was thought to have numbered between 800 and a thousand men. The whole of ISIS is thought to consist of around 10,000 fighters, about half of whom are in Syria.
But last Monday night and in the early hours of Tuesday morning, locals say they saw those security forces withdrawing from the city. There was a lot of confusion as to what was going on.
“The army withdrew from Mosul and that withdrawal is the responsibility of the senior commanders,” Amir al-Saadi, a soldier from one of the Iraqi Army’s divisions in Mosul, says. “The officer in charge was sitting in his office when I came in with some other soldiers. He told us he had received orders to withdraw from the city as quickly as possible. When he said that, we really thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. So we went out and told the others about the orders. That was when we started leaving the base, after changing out of our uniforms into civilian clothes.”
Al-Saadi made it safely back to Baghdad and is re-joining his unit in the central Iraqi city of Samarra shortly.
The orders to withdraw came over the radio, confirms Khudair Mahdi, a captain in the federal police working on the eastern side of Mosul. “On Monday evening we received news that there was some kind of problem on the western side of the city.”
This is where the extremists from the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, first attacked – it’s where the provincial council headquarters and the headquarters of various security organisations are based.
“So we waited for news,” Mahdi says. “Late on Monday night we got orders to leave our headquarters. Our senior officers told us that we could choose to withdraw with our weapons, vehicles and equipment or that we could leave it all behind. The majority of us choose to leave without taking anything.”
The orders came over the radio, he told NIQASH. “We were ordered to empty all premises held by security forces. But,” he adds, “we were not told where to withdraw to.”
Mahdi has returned to Baghdad but he doesn’t plan to go back to work with the federal police.
“The day before Ninawa fell to the extremists was strange,” a Mosul police officer, Ahmad al-Hamadani, told NIQASH over the phone; he is still in Mosul. “It felt as though there was something unusual going on. But we really didn’t expect the city to fall to the extremists as easily as it did.”
Al-Hamadani says the local police – that is, the police employed by the provincial council rather than the government in Baghdad, were the last to leave their posts.
There’s a reason for this. The Shiite-Muslim-led government in Baghdad has long been suspicious of the provincial government in Ninawa. The Sunni Muslim governor of Ninawa, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is the brother of one of al-Maliki’s main political opponents, leading Sunni Muslim politician Osama al-Nujaifi.
And in the past the provincial authorities in Ninawa and the federal governments have clashed over things like budget, oil, justice, security and how to negotiate with the neighbouring semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Security in Mosul was divided – there were local security forces loyal to the provincial council and usually made up of local, and therefore mostly Sunni Muslim, staff. But there were also Iraqi army forces. And over the past year, they have tended to dominate the provincial security staff. The Iraqi Army forces loyal to Baghdad all came under the somewhat controversial Ninawa Operations Command.
As a result, observers say, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has never really trusted the local security forces in Mosul. His confidence was in the Ninawa Operations Command.
Mosul policeman al-Hamadani continues: “On Tuesday we received word that the federal army and police were starting to withdraw from the city. We were afraid we were going to be left alone to face the extremists. So we decided to withdraw from the streets into our police headquarters.”
Mosul’s police were the last to leave their bases and al-Hamadani says they only did so because the federal forces had already gone.
Most of the security forces who left then managed to escape and remained unharmed. Some fled to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is well protected by the region’s own security forces and others went towards the Salahaddin province. Soldiers shed their uniforms and mingled with crowds of panicked residents also leaving town; most hid their identities until they reached safety.
Not all were so lucky though: Security sources say that one battalion, named The Charge of the Knight’s Brigade, didn’t get the orders in time and found itself surrounded by extremist fighters. The Brigade resisted until they ran out of ammunition but they were eventually overrun by ISIS and all members of the Brigade died.
The pictures that later emerged from Mosul have stunned and depressed the Iraqi people, no matter which sect they are from. “I started to cry,” one Baghdad school teacher says. “Over the past decade the same disaster keeps repeating itself. And the same politicians bear the responsibility for the suffering and humiliation of our armed forces.”
“There can only be a handful of people who know who actually gave those orders for the army to withdraw,” MP Hakim al-Zamily, a member of the Iraqi parliament's security and defence committee, told NIQASH. “One of them must be al-Maliki. But up until now he’s said nothing about this.”
“There are corrupt and unethical people in charge of security in Iraq and they bear this responsibility,” al-Zamily continues. “They must be brought to justice.”
Last Monday, a day before the Mosul was captured by extremists, senior commanders from the Iraqi army arrived in the city to oversee security plans against ISIS. These were the Iraqi Army's deputy chief of staff, Abboud Qanbar, the commander of Iraq’s land forces, Ali Ghaidan, and the head of the Ninawa Operations Command, Mahdi al-Ghrawi.
When they left Mosul, they were the most prominent leaders to do so. They went to Kirkuk, where they surrendered to Iraqi Kurdish troops in the city, handing over much of their equipment as well as responsibility for the city’s security to the Iraqi Kurdish.
This is also odd because Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s disputed territories – that is, land that the Iraqi Kurdish say belongs to them but which Baghdad also lays claim to. Iraqi Kurdish troops were already there because security in the multi-ethnic city is shared. Now Kirkuk is under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish.
And a number of videos have been posted to YouTube and other social media websites showing those Iraqi army commanders arriving in Kirkuk – the number of troops accompanying them would appear indicate that they were fully capable of engaging with ISIS.
All of which means a major question mark now hangs over the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from Ninawa: Why did they go? And who gave them the order?
A number of reasons have been suggested as to why the Iraqi army and security forces deserted their posts so readily in Mosul. Among them, are suggestions about poor discipline, no loyalty, lack of pay and low morale, as well as an unwillingness to defend members of another sect.
It’s also possible that when those very senior officers left Mosul, other officers were at a loss as to what to do, so they gave the orders to withdraw because they didn’t have any better ideas. Yet other reports have seen soldiers protest that that they were ready to fight, to the death to protect the territory.
Possibly this general confusion is why conspiracy theorists – a group that includes Iraq’s Prime Minister - have been quick to come up a number theories.
As he is wont to do, al-Maliki himself has suggested a conspiracy of some kind against him. He says he knows its details and he’s hinted that Sunni Muslim and Iraqi Kurdish politicians are behind it, because both groups want to decentralize the Iraqi government’s power further. This particular blame-the-Baathists conspiracy theory most likely suggests that Sunni Muslim insurgent groups like the Naqshbandi Army have been colluding with Sunni Muslim political parties to get rid of al-Maliki. They have agreed to work with ISIS as a means to an end - but will eventually expel them. Senior commanders in the army were part of the plot and Iraqi Kurds have also been supportive of this plan because things could also work out – and indeed, have worked out - in their interest.
Conspiracy theorists from another corner have suggested that the Prime Minister, who is the military’s Supreme Commander, himself is behind the army’s dereliction of duty. Before this crisis, al-Maliki’s third term in office was looking increasingly tenuous. Since it began al-Maliki has given himself extraordinary powers – even if that was without Parliament’s express permission. Faced with a common enemy, Shiite Muslim leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and Amir Hakim, have forgotten their recent criticisms of al-Maliki and al-Maliki has seen Iraq’s Shiite Muslims more or less unite behind him.
Before the crisis, there was also talk of political bargains with the Iraqi Kurdish where they were given the disputed territory they wanted - namely Kirkuk - as well as more independence in exchange for supporting al-Maliki in a new government. The Iraqi Kurdish now appear to have those things.
Syrian rebels have accused the neighbouring Syrian regime’s of using ISIS and other Sunni Muslim extremist groups: Could al-Maliki be taking a leaf out of Bashar al-Assad’s book, Iraqi conspiracy theorists ask.
Some of these conspiracy theories sound like exactly what they are right now: Theories. Nonetheless they are also all rather frightening theories because they point to a resurgence of the sectarian enmities that saw Iraq embroiled in what was basically a civil war between 2006 and 2008.
Then again maybe this is just Iraq’s perfect storm – a storm brought to breaking point by behind-the-scenes political corruption, lawlessness and incompetence combined with several years’ worth of government policies that have deepened sectarian divides, alongside the expansion of violent extremist groups who were ready to exploit those divides – what The Economist news magazine recently called “the Jihadi Spring”.
Right now, nobody knows who gave the order to withdraw and whether it was an order given in desperation or with an altogether different, potentially more nefarious purpose. And al-Maliki is not telling. It’s obvious that whoever did give any such order to withdraw from Mosul has more details. And sooner or later, those details must emerge.