'The police evaporated': Remembering the day ISIS seized Mosul 10 years ago

Security in Iraq deteriorated throughout 2013 and early 2014, but one of Iraq's largest cities seemed to fall to ISIS overnight

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Major Abbasi remembers an ominous atmosphere in Mosul in the days and weeks before fighting erupted on June 6, 2014, when ISIS began a lightning assault on Iraq’s second city that shocked the world.

“Intelligence indicated that the militants planned to cross the border from Syria and join sleeper cells in Nineveh,” the military officer told The National, adding that local leaders did not take serious measures or inform Baghdad.

In early June, extremists started attacking the Iraqi army and Federal Police on the western side of Mosul.

“Their attacks were not the usual hit-and-run tactic, but they were advancing,” said Maj Abbasi, whose name has been changed because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Mosul fell to ISIS on June 10.

Five days earlier, security forces declared a curfew and on June 7, Baghdad sent the Defence Ministry's deputy chief of staff, Aboud Qanbar, and the commander of the ground forces, Ali Ghaidan, to assess the situation.

Then the operational commander of Nineveh Province, Lt Gen Mahdi Gharawi ordered soldiers to shell neighbourhoods under ISIS control.

Lt Gen Gharawi was in the widely disliked Federal Police, a force residents accused of brutality, sectarianism and corruption.

The shelling “didn’t work, hundreds of militants kept flocking to the city and outnumbered our troops", Maj Abbasi said.

“It became obvious that we lost the battle in the western part, especially when we heard and saw on TV how some of the residents welcomed the militants and how a number of security forces joined them," he added.

Maj Abbasi’s remark about being outnumbered jars with the strength of the Iraqi army at the time, at least on paper. Mosul was defended by the 2nd Army Division and the 3rd Federal Police Division.

South of the city, Kirkuk and nearby towns were overseen by the 4th and 12th army divisions.

These units should have had a combined strength of about 40,000, far more than the estimated 4,000 ISIS fighters.

But the Iraqi forces largely crumbled, with the exception of some tenacious groups that fought on for several days.

Years of resentment

Like many overwhelmingly Sunni cities, Mosul was a hotbed for insurgency in the years after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein.

After Mosul fell to US forces, many Moslawis perceived them to be pro-Kurdish. Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered the city alongside the US troops and were accused of trying to establish security dominance.

Attempts to install a representative local government broke down due to the US policy of de-Baathification, under which members of local government were removed for their association with Saddam's Baath party. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, in office from 2006 to 2014, was a champion of this policy.

After a brief period of relative calm as troops led by former US general David Petraeus took over operations in the city – working closely with local governors – militant groups soon re-established themselves, particularly in the city’s western side.

Many army officers linked to the Saddam regime lived in the city’s west, with its historic Old Town and famed Al Habda minaret.

Attacks on Iraqi security forces and US troops occurred almost daily, sometimes leading to the control of some areas by the militants for hours or during the night, to leave in the morning.

Iraqi security forces imposed strict security measures inside the city, arresting suspects and closing roads. Some residents accused them of using the war against the militants to extort money from businesses and arrest innocent people.

Police brutality

Some of these practices are still etched in the memory of the residents.

“I saw with my own eyes how an army lieutenant ordered a man in his forties to get out of his car only to lash him three times with a hose, accusing him of not complying to stop at the checkpoint,” Nadhim Mohammed Al Zubaidi, 68, told The National.

“Can you imagine the deep-seated resentment that resulted from these acts?” he said, sitting inside his tools and construction materials shop in the heart of Mosul’s Old City. The residents were under pressure.”

Maj Abbasi, who served in the city from 2006 until its fall to ISIS, acknowledged that the security forces failed to win the hearts of the community.

“The relation between Mosul residents and the security forces was tense,” he said. “Yes, there were provocative practices by some field leaders and their soldiers in streets and markets.

“All that made Mosul a hotbed for different militant groups – even those who are not directly involved with them sympathised with them and just wanted anyone other than Baghdad-run security forces.”

Among these practices, he added, was the widespread arrests of suspects, who were later released in return for payment, and extorting money from merchants for letting lorries through checkpoints.

ISIS was simultaneously raising funds through protection rackets and the black market.

Corroded by corruption

Lax discipline within the security forces was exacerbated by corruption, particularly the problem of “ghost soldiers” who paid their officers half their salaries and in return did not show up for duty.

One brigade defending Mosul was meant to number 2,500, but it had only 500 men.

On June 9, commanders began to flee in a bitter blow to the morale of their troops.

Qanbar and Ghaidan left Mosul for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, leaving Gharawi with a handful of soldiers in the operational command in the city's east. He, too, left for Kurdistan the next day.

Nawzad Al Haji was one of the soldiers guarding one the main gates of the complex of Saddam's presidential palaces that housed the headquarters of various security factions when an officer told them to leave.

“The officer told us: ‘What are you doing here? All officers and leaders left and you are still here? They [militants] come and kill you. Run away,'” Mr Al Haji recalled.

The soldiers took off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes and managed to blend in with families fleeing the city.

Mosul's residents were shocked by how quickly the security forces evaporated.

Mr Al Zubaidi recalled being at home around noon when he heard militants telling residents through the loudspeakers of Al Nouri Mosque to stay in their homes and not to open fire.

“I rushed outside to check on my store and found pickup trucks of the nearby police station ablaze, the doors wide open and no one, officers and policemen, there,” he recalled.

“There were, like, 100 policemen, where did they go? All evaporated.”

Small but deadly force

Iraqi security sources who spoke to The National emphasised how, while ISIS in Iraq may not have been powerful, they formed convenient alliances with several anti-government groups, arming and gaining experience in the war in neighbouring Syria.

“Expansion allowed ISIS to amass resources, territory and fighters in both Syria and Iraq,” an Interior Ministry intelligence officer said.

“It started to attract those who were disappointed with Al Qaeda’s failure, offering them the caliphate as a new model of governing. The caliphate idea resonated globally, attracting foreign fighters.”

At that time, ISIS adopted new strategies and tactics.

“ISIS also made the most of social media for propaganda and recruitment that further augmented its ranks and influence,” the intelligence officer said.

Among groups briefly allied to ISIS were the Naqshbandi Order, formed by Saddam's right-hand man Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, the Islamic Army and the 1920s Revolution Brigades.

However, these agreements collapsed weeks after ISIS’s successful offensive. Soon enemies and early sympathisers alike were terrified by the group’s rise.

It published high-quality videos of well-co-ordinated attacks against security forces and raids on the homes of officers or tribal sheikhs aligned with Baghdad. Scenes of beheadings and shootings were essential elements of these videos, to further break their opponents' morale.

ISIS also increased operations by its elite troops, known as the Inghemasiyoun – Arabic for “those who immerse themselves”.

They would infiltrate their targets, unleashing mayhem and fighting to the death, wearing explosive belts to blow themselves up among their opponents.

Such attacks, like the case of a suicide bomber who walked into an Iraqi general’s house in 2013 but was shot before he could detonate explosives, were near impossible to stop. The general survived the first attack, 60km west of Mosul, only for a second bomber to kill him and three guards.

A decade later, such attacks are almost unheard of. The vast majority of ISIS fighters died during the government campaign that ultimately defeated them in 2017, while communities where they sought shelter during the war have rejected their brutality.

Tailor Mahmoud Thanoon said extremism that plagued his hometown of Mosul after 2003 was one of the main factors that led to the events of 2014.

“I think extremism in Mosul is gone now, people realise now who’s the friend and who’s the enemy,” said Mr Thanoon, who has lost three sons in Iraq's conflicts since 2003.

Updated: June 07, 2024, 6:17 AM