Families fleeing Mosul toward the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Because it had been a flashpoint in the conflict between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis Mosul, Iraq’s second city, had a fortified presence of the Iraqi army and police. Yet, fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) did not need much time or effort to capture the city.
There was no major battle, analysts contacted by Rudaw say. The Iraqi army simply melted away. The same happened in Fallujah earlier this year, and ISIS has been in control of that city ever since. It happened again when ISIS fighters moved from Mosul into Kirkuk: the entire 47th brigade fled from Hawija.
“The officers left the checkpoints,” says Abbas Muslim, a lawyer from Mosul. “And if the officers do not fight, the soldiers will not fight, either.”
There are reports that the military was ordered out. But in Mosul the soldiers left most of their weapons behind, and opened the way for ISIS to help themselves to the helicopters and other military equipment at the military airport just outside town. The jihadists unlocked prisons, releasing members and sympathizers who would join the fight.
Many in Iraq wonder how it is possible that their army could fail so badly.
“Our soldiers are not professional,” says Muslim. But he wonders if that is the real explanation. He might speak for many when he declares that “the unexpected collapse of the army can only be explained if it is part of a bigger plan.”
A number of developments have been considered as odd. Muslim mentions how 500,000 people left the city within two days.
“Like in 1991, we were told by the media that the security would collapse, even before it did. People heard it and fled their neighborhoods. Not because of the violence around them, as ISIS would only arrive 24 hours later, but because they were made scared.”
People saw Iraqi Parliament Chairman Osama al-Nujaifi answer questions after news that Mosul had fallen. But where was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who among wide powers he has given himself also heads the Ministry of Defence?
When he finally spoke, the premier called for a State of Emergency – impossible to impose without army and police in the city. And he asked for help from outside while -- apart from taking delivery of the first F-16 fighter from the United States -- he has refused American military help time and again.
And then Maliki called on all capable Iraqis to pick up arms and fight the ISIS -- in fact inciting militias to become active again.
He could have asked the Kurds to send in the Peshmarga forces, but he did not. And the Kurds could not reply to a request from the governor of Mosul for military help, as they first need the okay from Baghdad.
That there was a plan, people say, can be seen from the fact that many VIPs left Mosul before ISIS entered. Were they informed beforehand? Possibly, as local anti-Maliki activists are known to have sided with radical Muslims, and former army officers made deals with al-Qaida.
ISIS, which was born in Iraq under the wings of the most radical fighters in al-Qaida, has been diminished in Syria over the past months. It has been eyeing Iraq as the alternative for its vision of an Islamic Caliphate. That is why it got a hold on Fallujah and is still trying to conquer Ramadi.
Some analysts say that capturing Mosul means a change of plan.
“They decided to take the northern route to Baghdad, when things did not work out in Ramadi,” says journalist Khidher Domle, who is specialized in war and peace issues. The new route passes by Kirkuk and Tikrit; the first battles are already being fought around Kirkuk.
So who is helping ISIS to the new equipment the fighters were showing off when entering Mosul? The TV images of the long column of vehicles mounted with rocket launchers and guns have greatly impressed many civilians.
The answer, says Domle, is Iran: “It wants to open a big gap between the Sunnis and Shiites. You can hear most people, even the more simple ones, say that Iran is behind it.”
Iran has been supporting Maliki ever since he came to office some eight years ago. What has he got to gain by the chaos that ISIS is causing? It could help unite the Shiites behind him, out of fear that ISIS will also take over Baghdad and rob them of their power. And that could be helpful in forming the awaited new government, as the Kurds and Sunnis have not been willing to work with Maliki again.
There are some indications the chaos is controlled. In Mosul, guards have been placed at the banks and the government buildings. But the office holding details of the population was burned down, erasing information about who is registered and owns possessions in the city. And what to make of the fact that the Kurdish-held eastern neighborhoods were left untouched by ISIS?
What a risk Maliki is taking, if this analysis is correct. People in Baghdad are now worried about when ISIS will reach the city. Within days, they fear, considering the progress the militants have made so far. While militias are getting ready to receive them warmly, civilians must decide to leave, or stay and sit it out.