ERBIL, IRAQ // Iraqi soldier Bassil Hassan says he wept as he abandoned his base in the face of a Sunni militant advance and is desperate to redeem himself by returning to the fight.
He stands outside the Iraqi Airways office in the northern city of Erbil, clamouring for a plane ticket to get back to Baghdad and rejoin his unit.
He is one of many Iraqi army soldiers who left their posts, clearing the way for Sunni militants, including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), to seize major cities.
“I’ve been in the army for five years, and I’ve never withdrawn without a fight,” says Mr Hassan.
“Before we left, we were weeping. We feel so ashamed, because we didn’t fight, we were defeated without firing a single shot.”
He says soldiers in his unit in Kirkuk province began deserting in the hours after the northern city of Mosul fell and militants were reported to be entering the province.
His commander summoned the troops and said they could leave if they wanted.
“Then 10 minutes later he came back and said there’s an order from Baghdad to leave, put on civilian clothes and go back to your families.”
Security forces in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province, as well as Salaheddin and Kirkuk, largely wilted when faced with the militant onslaught which began on June 9.
While soldiers and police have regrouped in recent days, insurgents have also been making progress, particularly in western Iraq.
Now, with the federal government in Baghdad ordering the forces to return to duty immediately, Mr Hassan and others are eager to prove their mettle.
Nearby is 26-year-old Mustafa Hussein, an electrical engineer with the army, who was based in Kirkuk.
He says the men in his technical contingent were forced to leave their station when troops from the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga arrived.
“We didn’t withdraw,” he says.
“The peshmerga came and said we were going to cooperate as a joint force, but then problems started with them, they even pointed their weapons at us, and then they kicked us out.”
He says he and his colleagues would have been happy to cooperate with the Kurdish troops, but his superior in Baghdad encouraged them to leave.
“We asked the commander, who was in Baghdad, to help us and give us weapons but he refused and told us to go home.”
For the last four days, he has been coming to the airline office to try and find a flight back, with no success.
More than half a million Iraqis fled their homes in cities that fell to the militants, and many of them are still trying to fly south to areas that are safe, for now at least.
“As soon as there is a seat, I will go to Taji base, and get back to work,” Mr Hussein says, referring to a base north of Baghdad.
* Agence France-Presse