When Islamic extremists captured Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, on Tuesday, followed by Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, on Wednesday, the biggest surprise to residents was that the army and police abandoned their posts without a fight.
The charges are flying back and forth between regional leaders and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as to who’s responsible. The provincial governor, Atheel al Nujaifi, charged Maliki with full responsibility, and said the fall of Mosul spelled the fall of the Maliki regime. Maliki said the conquest of Mosul was "a trick and conspiracy."
What’s clear, however, is that Iraq’s security forces are in complete disarray, and in no position to win back anytime soon the territory lost to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. If they cannot, then the question becomes whether Iraq can survive as an integral country.
Maliki, a Shiite Muslim politician, has asked parliament to declare a state of emergency following the debacle in mostly Sunni Ninevah province, even as he tries to ease his way into a third term after winning a plurality of votes in parliamentary elections last month.
It will not be an easy decision for parliament to grant absolute powers to the man who took on the posts of defense minister, interior minister as well as the head of intelligence and thus has direct responsibility for what happened in Mosul. Close observers of the Iraqi political scene predict that if Iraq’s major sectarian and ethnic groupings, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, do not agree to oust him and install a national unity government, the oil-rich country is headed for civil war and breakup.
In Mosul, which has a population of nearly 1.8 million, ISIS faced no resistance. “We, and every other concerned authority, knew they were coming, and which side of the city they would take first,” Esmat Rajab, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Mosul, told Niqash, a Kurdish publication, Wednesday. He was referring to the part of Mosul that housed the provincial council, ministerial buildings as well as the military headquarters. "But we thought the Iraqi army and local police would remain on duty at the five bridges which connect the city, and that they would basically fight ISIS from those positions, on the other side of the city. But we were wrong.”
Rajab, who fled to the autonomous province of Kurdistan, where his KDP is one of the major political parties, put the blame on the composition of the army, which he said was “based on sectarian allegiances,” had no loyalty to the region, and saw no point in defending it. He estimated there were no more than 1,000 armed ISIS fighters, supplemented by other disaffected local forces.
“If the army had resisted them, there is no way they would have been able to capture the whole city. It’s a big place, and even with 10,000 fighters, it would be tricky,” he said. Local journalists say there were at least 20,000 soldiers and police officers available to defend the town.
The composition of the army is not the only reason the central government isn’t likely to recapture Mosul any time soon. A second reason is the deep distrust Sunnis and Kurds hold for Maliki, who has shown himself to be a manipulative leader who seemingly prefers to keep the pot boiling to secure his own constituency rather than resolve the country’s economic, territorial and other disputes.
A third reason to doubt a rapid restoration of central government power is Maliki’s record in Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, major Sunni cities that have become ISIS strongholds since the beginning of this year.
Critics say Maliki’s efforts to reconquer the cities have been completely counter-productive. Where a counter-insurgency strategy is called for, which would seek to win the “hearts and minds” of the local population and gain their input into intelligence-gathering, Maliki instead has relied on heavy weapons, including “barrel-bombs,” the deadly unguided munitions that have been blamed for hundreds of civilian deaths in Syria. Needless to say, their use in Fallujah has alienated the civilian population.
“The Iraqi army won’t attack on the ground. They will try to bomb the city,” said Dana Assad, the chief editor of Awene.com, a Kurdish news website, said of the likely response to ISIS’ takeover of Mosul. “That’s what they always do in Fallujah and in Anbar province. Only if the Iraqi army reorganized itself could it win back Mosul _ and after months of fighting,” he said.
But building a professional army that is capable of confronting an armed insurgency and can convince a disaffected population that it is there to protect them takes years, even decades. Iraq under the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in fact had a professional army that was battle hardened by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. But in one of the first and most calamitous decisions of the Bush administration following the U.S. invasion in March 2003, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, disbanded the army and other security services.
Instead of building an entirely new army, the interim administration enlisted militias with sectarian or ethnic loyalties rather an allegiance to the Iraqi state. Those militias never overcame their sectarian allegiances. Officers were often promoted based on their loyalty to political figures like Maliki, or others in his Dawa party, rather than on the basis of merit, U.S. military observers have stated. When push came to shove in Mosul, the officers walked off the job.
That’s one point that the two top politicians in the drama can agree on. Nujaifi said the military commanders, and the army as a whole, “vanished in Mosul” and should be put on trial. Maliki, for his part, said he would hold responsible all police and military forces “who withdrew in the face of terrorism.” He ordered top officers to “review your mistakes and hold yourselves responsible, before we do it.”
But as the serving defense minister, Maliki is being advised to do the same.
Before even contemplating a military response, Maliki “should apologize for this failure” and rethink all his policies toward other sectors of the population, said Kurdish politician Rajab.