BAGHDAD // The Iraqi soldiers tell of how they can hardly live with the shame of their rout under the onslaught of the Islamic militants. Their commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. Troops ran from post to post only to find them already taken by gunmen, forcing them to flee.
“I see it in the eyes of my family, relatives and neighbours,” one lieutenant-colonel who escaped the militants’ sweep over the northern city of Mosul said. “I am as broken and ashamed...”
Iraq’s military has been deeply shaken by their collapse in the face of fighters led by the Al Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who in the course of just over a week overran Mosul then stormed toward Baghdad, seizing town after town, several cities and army base after army base over a large swath of territory.
The effect is hurting efforts to rally the armed forces to fight back. Shiite militiamen and volunteers have had to fill the void as the regular army struggles to regroup.
Top commanders have been put under investigation. Conspiracy theories are running rampant to explain the meltdown. Some Shiite allies of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki have accused Kurds in the north of encouraging the military collapse so they could grab territory and weapons for themselves — an accusation that they’ve provided no proof for but that is straining already tense ties with the Kurdish autonomous zone, where officials deny the claim.
On Tuesday, Mr Al Maliki retired three generals who had been deployed in Mosul and ordered legal proceedings against them. He also dismissed a brigadier general and ordered his court martial in absentia. He said he planned to retire off or court martial more senior officers, but gave no details.
Already he had ordered the questioning of the military’s Chief of Joint Operations Gen Abboud Gambar and the ground forces commander Gen Ali Gheidan, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The two face no charges and no legal action has been taken against them.
Mr Al Maliki has also vowed to bring the full weight of military law, including the execution of deserters, on anyone who is found out to have fled the battle.
Mr Al Maliki is trying to turn the armed forces around. He told army commanders and volunteers in a rally south of Baghdad this week that the rout served as a much needed wake-up call. He said it would lead to the exposure and punishment of military commanders and politicians he accuses of betraying their country. He has also cryptically blamed conspiracies, acts of treachery and meddling Arab nations.
The blow was particularly harsh in a country that has traditionally prided itself on the prowess of its soldiers, with the faith of its Shiite majority immersed in a narrative of martyrdom that is rooted in the fabled bravery of its saints.
Members of the political coalition led by Mr Al Maliki openly accused the Kurdish self-rule government of collusion with the Islamic militants in the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by doing nothing to prevent its fall. They said Kurdish fighters illegally seized large quantities of weapons and equipment left behind by fleeing Iraqi troops.
Mr Al Maliki’s allies have not produced evidence to back up their claims, which the Kurds categorically denied.
The breakdown is rooted in multiple factors. Even after the United States spent billions of dollars training the armed forces during its 2003-2011 military presence in Iraq, the 1 million-member army and police remain riven by sectarian discontents, corruption and a lack of professionalism.
The territory that the Islamic State has captured has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, where resentment is high against Mr Al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government because of what they see as discrimination against their communities.
At the time Islamic State fighters overran Mosul a week ago, there were about 50,000 federal and regular local police in the city and two army divisions totalling about 24,000 troops. The federal police were largely Shiites, the locals mainly Sunnis from Mosul. One of the army divisions was mixed Sunni-Shiite and the other was mainly composed of Kurds.
Among the troops who escaped Mosul, the humiliation hits deep.
The lieutenant colonel, a Shiite, had been stationed in an airbase in Mosul. They received orders to pull out and fall back to their division headquarters, but when they got there they found it had already been captured by militants who were looting its arsenals. So he and his comrades fled to the city of Kirkuk, to the south-east, then proceeded to Baghdad.
He said they were detained briefly at a checkpoint near Baghdad and questioned by other soldiers why they fled — a further shame.
“I have been fighting in Mosul for five years, we never ran away. Some of us were killed and injured, but we never ran away,” he said. “Now, people tell me we are cowards, can you imagine? I cannot sleep. Death is more merciful.”
* Associated Press