Iraqi soldier Shaalan Abdel-Wahab says he was ready for a battle to the death to defend the northern city of Mosul from Islamist militants: “We either kill them or get killed.”
That changed on a day of fighting on an empty stomach, as food and reinforcements failed to arrive while attackers from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant struck with an explosive-laden truck, followed by heavy gunfire. For Abdel-Wahab, the last straw came with word that senior commanders had fled. He soon joined the soldiers shedding their uniforms and melting away, overrun by the al-Qaeda breakaway group.
“Our morale collapsed and we lost the motivation to fight,” the 25-year-old Sunni Muslim said in a phone interview last week from the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq, which he says he reached after hiking for hours with tears pouring down his face. “If there’s a strong Iraqi army, why didn’t it come for Mosul, and how come more areas have fallen? There is no more hope in the army.”
His despair shows the challenge ahead for Iraq to rebuild a military that wasn’t able to defend the strategic prize of Mosul from the Islamists, even after U.S. training and billions of dollars of support. Calls by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Shiite religious leaders for volunteers to take up arms risk embedding the sectarian tensions more deeply within the armed forces.
“For long-term stability, you absolutely need an apolitical, professional army,” Austin Long, who teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York and specializes in Iraq, said by phone. “There just seems to be no prospect right now for that happening. Maliki’s response to this crisis has been to turn to the Shiites even more so than he has before.”
Sectarian violence flared in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, which ousted Saddam Hussein and eventually handed political ascendancy to Iraq’s Shiite majority. Maliki, premier since 2006, has been accused of sidelining Sunnis, and there were signs that ISIL received support from some local Sunnis in Mosul and other towns it has attacked.
Maliki said last week he wants an army “that rejects sectarianism and politicization.” He said Sunnis have also responded to the calls for volunteers, and it’s unfair to say only Shiites were coming forward. The premier also defended the armed forces from criticism, saying they have performed well over the past decade and describing them as a “solid rock,” state-run Iraqiya television reported.
The U.S. says that an end to sectarianism is crucial to rebuilding the army and government. President Barack Obama, who announced June 19 he would send as many as 300 military advisers to help the Iraqi army fight ISIL, said leaders must overcome their differences and govern for all Iraqis.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked in a June 18 Senate hearing why the Iraq army, which the U.S. spent $25 billion to train and equip, had performed so badly against ISIL. He pointed to a lack of army leaders “supported by a central government that is working on behalf of all the people.” Dempsey said the Iraqi army “has not broken down entirely on sectarian lines, but it could.”
The effort to enlist new fighters after the fall of Mosul highlights that risk, said Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East and Africa editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“The way they seem to be going is to rapidly raise a popular militia made up of young Shiite men who are much more enthusiastic about fighting for the state than obviously many of the soldiers in the north were,” he said. “If you throw those guys into the fight without much training, then they might well suffer very heavy casualties. If they do take control of some of these areas, then are they going to have the discipline not to carry out reprisal kind of attacks?”
Thousands of armed Shiite militiamen staged military-style parades on June 21 in cities including Baghdad, Basra, Najaf and Kut, according to footage on Al Arabiya television.
Maliki has acted against the army commanders who failed to defend Mosul. He dismissed the three top generals who were in charge of operations in Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, and the commander of the army’s Third Infantry Division who “fled the battle scene,” according to a government decree. He also ordered an inquiry into 59 officers commanding units who deserted their posts, Almada news agency reported June 18.
Who Takes Over?
The effectiveness of the move will depend on who takes over from the fired commanders, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He said Maliki had been replacing the “good, smart, competent and apolitical officers” with others who “were nothing but loyal to him.”
Maliki has also said deserters may face death sentences if they fail to return, according to Almada. He’s not the only one making threats.
Abdel-Wahab said that his mother in Mosul was told by ISIL allies that he must return to Mosul, or they would take his brother. He said a few fellow soldiers had made the trip back to “announce their repentance” to the militants, and they hadn’t been heard of since.
“The militants want us to return because we are Sunnis. They want us to confront the Shiites with them if they come,” he said. “There could be a sectarian war.”
As conditions grew tougher in his refugee camp, with scorching heat, dwindling food and no cold water, Abdel-Wahab said he wanted Maliki to pardon the troops that ran away. He also said that at one point he contemplated giving himself up to the militants, though it went against the grain.
“I have been fighting these people and trying to drive them out of Mosul, and now I go and surrender to them?” he said. “It’s the government’s weakness that made me think of that.”
Eventually, Abdel-Wahab reached an army base, and he said yesterday that he hoped to be sent back to fight in Mosul, though he saw no sign of that happening yet.
“So far, there’s no movement,” he said. “It’s all talk.”