On Day Four of clashes in Mosul between encroaching jihadists and Iraqi security forces, two officers visited an outpost of the Iraqi 2nd Division’s logistics battalion with bad news: they said that all senior commanders had fled.
Stunned and confused, the men called headquarters and received the same information, that all officers colonel and above had abandoned their posts. This evaporation of the officer corps, followed quickly by the rank and file, gave wide berth to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the extremist group whose capture of northwestern Iraqi territories has brought the country once again to the brink of civil war.For the ordinary Iraqi soldiers who followed their officers in flight, the unraveling of their nation also brought a deep sense of personal shame and betrayal, said Pvt. First Class Mohammed al Nasseri, who insisted he be identified by a pseudonym because the government has threatened to prosecute deserters.
“I wish I’d been killed rather than live with the humiliation of this return,” Nasseri said.He shared his account by telephone from his southern hometown of Nasariya, where he was still struggling to come to terms with his decision to flee even as he braced for a stream of friends and relatives to show up as part of a tradition to welcome loved ones back from an arduous journey.
Nasseri’s anger was fresh, and he couldn’t help but compare the performance of the Iraqi officers with that of the U.S. military leaders who trained him and the U.S. forces he fought alongside as part of a quick-response team in the insurgent flashpoint of Fallujah years ago. His account, detailed but impossible to independently confirm, painted a picture of a corrupt military leadership that shook down soldiers for cash, kept nonexistent service members on the payroll, and showed up to standard only on the rare occasion Baghdad sends an inspector.
Had the Iraqi military brass in Mosul been chosen because of competency rather than cronyism, Nasseri suggested, perhaps the Islamic State’s march toward Baghdad could’ve been halted, or at least stalled.
“I know what I need to know about fighting in a city,” Nasseri said. “I fought side by side with Americans. Their military has leaders that tell the soldiers what the plan is, and fight. We don’t. There were many more terrorists in Fallujah and the fight was over in a month. (Mosul) wouldn’t have been a big problem if we had leaders.”
Five days after Mosul’s fall late Monday, Iraq on Saturday remained a country spinning apart. While spokesmen for the Iraqi military insisted that the army had halted the ISIS advance at such key towns as Samarra, 70 miles from Baghdad, there was scant evidence of any significant combat and little sign that ISIS and its allies from a collection of Sunni Muslim militias had been pushed back in any significant way.
The Reuters news agency reported fighting at Udhaim, 60 miles north of Baghdad, and Peter Bouckeart, the emergencies director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, posted on Facebook that ISIS was receiving mortar fire in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Baghdad. Reuters, citing Tikrit residents, said ISIS forces had booby trapped the entrances to the city in preparation for an assault from the Iraqi military.
In an email to McClatchy, an Iraqi journalist reported that the capital remained “stunned” at ISIS’s rapid advance. Thousands of Shiite Muslims have mustered in the city, answering a call from the country’s most important Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to bolster the Iraqi army. “If the fight comes to Baghdad there will be carnage,” the journalist wrote, asking not to be identified by name out of security concerns.
Nasseri’s account of his flight makes it seem unlikely that the Iraqi army would soon gain the initiative.
Nasseri said his battalion was supposed to be focused on supplies and transportation, but that the Iraqi military is so poorly organized that he and other logistics soldiers often were sent on raids and other combat-related missions. Nasseri, who said his unit was made up almost exclusively of Shiite Muslims from the fairly homogenous south, said he had spent the past seven years in Mosul and had come to know well the diverse city of Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
Nasseri served on the east side of Mosul, in a district named “Saddam,” a vestige of the former regime of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. On June 5, the first day of the jihadists’ foray into Mosul, a commercial city of 2 million that had long been an Islamic State cash cow and recruiting ground, Nasseri’s unit got word of suspicious men openly carrying arms in the Saddam district.
Nasseri said he’d return to the fight, but only because of Sistani’s call to arms _ not for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki or for the “corrupt” Shiite political elite he holds responsible for the military’s collapse.
“We felt that we were sold off. The army is broken,” Nasseri said. “I’m still in shock. I can’t understand it _ how did all of this happen, and so fast?”
“It is true I was there for the salary,” Nasseri added, “but I was honored to fight the terrorists.”