By: Hemin Lihony
A shocking betrayal, waves of suicide attacks, days hiding in the desert. This is a first-hand account by a top Kurdish commander in the Iraqi armed forces about what really happened – and what happens next – in Ramadi, Anbar and Iraq.
In the past year and half we engaged in major battles. At times, ISIS targeted the Iraqi Army and police with 25 car bombs, yet our forces managed to fight back and repel the attacks.
But this time there was a major betrayal by the Special Operations command. This command was formed by the Americans during [former] prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and they carried the latest advanced weapons.
Two days prior to the ISIS attack we had accurate information that the Special Operations had packed up and abandoned their base in Ramadi.
I personally relayed the information through the chain of command and contacted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
This command was formed by the Americans during [former] prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and they carried the latest advanced weapons.
I informed him of the photo and video evidence and location of hundreds of army vehicles and Humvees of the Special Operations forces assembled and about to abandon Ramadi.
I explained to PM Abadi the exact location of the forces on the map. It was 4am. They flew a plane to the place I told them and took photos of the assembled vehicles. They learned that the intelligence was correct and that indeed the forces were getting ready to withdraw.
Later that day more than 200 army vehicles abandoned their posts and their withdrawal led to the defeat of all other forces that were in Anbar to fight.
Why did the Special Operations act this way? I personally think there was a political reason behind it.
As a military commander, I don’t think PM Abadi or the Ministry of Defense have any authority over the Special Operations. Or it could be that the Shiite forces close to Maliki committed this act in order to embarrass and bring down Abadi’s government.
The Anbar police force numbers 29,000, but over the course of the year and half that I was there I never saw more than 500 policemen showing up for duty. Most of them had settled in the Kurdistan region and still continued to receive their pay.
I had met with the Interior Minister, Iraq’s police chief and my chain of command that there didn’t exist in Anbar a police force and that the small number who remained were involved in spying, betrayals and causing us trouble.
They weren’t there to fight.
The confrontations broke out at 4am on May 17. As the Special Operations abandoned their posts, ISIS militants managed to enter Ramadi and cut off the remaining forces still fighting inside the city.
It was an extraordinary withdrawal and there was no reason for it. They pulled out so fast that in most cases they left their vehicles intact with their weapons and ammunition inside.
A day earlier, ISIS attacked us with car bombs as well as bulldozers, armored vehicles and loaders all laden with explosives but our force stayed put and didn’t pull back.
The operations commander and I stayed until 5pm in the base. Most of the Special Operations command base had by then fallen to ISIS. By the evening of that day, most of the soldiers of the Special Operations had fled. Even the personal guards of the commander took with them their six Humvees and left the commander alone.
I had with me 40 personnel who stayed on and didn’t abandon me. I was a Kurd and my guards were all Arabs. We were the last to leave Ramadi. We torched what we couldn’t carry to prevent it from falling to ISIS.
The Anbar police force numbers 29,000, but over the course of the year and half that I was there I never saw more than 500 policemen showing up for duty.
At 6pm, I was still inside the city stadium. When I realized it was all lost we pulled out, too. Along the way out of Ramadi I caught up with the force that had withdrawn earlier. There were 600-700 vehicles filled with soldiers, police officers and their families.
They were held up in a small area and had no way out.
At 7pm, I contacted the Defense Ministry and said that the forces were defeated, besieged by ISIS and under heavy attack with mortar fire. I said, If you do not come to our rescue a second Camp Spiecher would happen.
The place where we were held up was smaller than a football field. There were many dead and injured and we knew that if we stayed there until morning no one would make it out alive.
At that point, I realized that we had no other choice but to fight our way to safety. So I led my forces about 25km through the enemy forces. We were under fire from all sides. From there we made a turn into the Anbar desert.
We torched vehicles that broke down so that ISIS didn’t take them. That’s the way we managed to get out of Anbar. In that process of fighting our way out we lost 25 men and 45 were injured.
Once we reached a safe area of the desert we stayed behind in 15 vehicles. We were there for two days and two nights without food or water. The dead and injured had already started to smell. In that desert there was no mobile network coverage or proper roads.
Some still managed to get out with their vehicles. Others walked away on foot. For 350km in different directions people and soldiers were dispersed and everyone tried to get as far away as possible.
As commanders we could not leave them.
We checked at all times to make sure no one was left behind. The commanders couldn’t just save themselves and abandon the rest. The forces were in such defeated morale that we could neither control them nor organize them.
My guards stayed with me to the end because of our personal relationship and not the commander-soldier relationship.
We continued that way until we reached Nukhaib and from there to Karbala where we reached safety.
Iraqi and coalition jets offered limited assistance. The Americans weren’t really that serious in hitting ISIS to help us.
The last vehicles to get out of there that night were ours. Thankfully we all got out and we brought with us the dead and injured without leaving anyone behind.
I realized that we had no other choice but to fight our way to safety. So I led my forces about 25km through the enemy forces. We were under fire from all sides.
By all accounts and evidence I can say that the Special Operations command were responsible for the fall of Ramadi.
We had seen bigger wars and tougher confrontations without faltering. But the army in Ramadi collapsed in a short battle.
Two days before those events the Special Operations was split into two commands. One led by Muhammad Khalaf Saeed of the 12th division and the other, at Habanyya, was under the command of Fadhil Barwari. The Special Operations was responsible for the fall of both fronts.
Anbar is gone and will not be taken back.
Last year, the Iraqi army had 15 divisions and some of the best weapons and was in charge of Mosul and Tikrit, yet it couldn’t take back 10 percent of Anbar that was out of control. How can it retake this province with Mosul and Tikrit gone?
The ISIS of now is different from that of a year ago in terms of fighting tactics, arms and devotion.
About five days before the attack on Ramadi I had intelligence that 400 armed vehicles had entered Iraq from Raqqah through the Qaim border crossing. Their plan was to deploy 200 vehicles to Tikrit and the other 200 to Ramadi.
I informed my superiors of the ISIS plan and suggested they be taken out by airstrikes on the road but that didn’t happen and the convoys reached Anbar and Tikrit.
Within hours of their arrival 24 car combs attacked us. This means foreign suicide bombers had come to Anbar from Syria. That day, however, ISIS couldn’t advance. The next day they sent 30 suicide bombers into our defense lines.
An enemy that can prepare 50 suicide bombers overnight, isn’t a joke.
I don’t think all the airstrikes and attacks on ISIS in the past year and half have degraded any of the ISIS capacity. In fact, ISIS is getting stronger and has weapons that we don’t have.
ISIS now poses a 70 percent threat to the capital Baghdad and all the Shiite militia could do is to prevent the army from pulling out. I don’t think they can take back any territory from ISIS.
Omar Shayan has contributed to this report.