Soldiers who were in Mosul say they were ordered to leave the city, shortly before extremists took control. The question is why? And who ultimately gave that order?
by Mustafa Habib
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 oppon
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 reportshave 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.