Mosul’s blame game
An inquiry into the fall of Mosul shows total chaos and sectarianism in Iraq’s military, writes Salah Nasrawi
For three consecutive nights last week the former commander of the Iraqi security forces in Mosul appeared on a late night television show to try to clear his name after accusations that he was responsible for the fall of the strategic city to the Islamic State (IS) terror group in June.
While trying to put the blame for the stunning defeat of his troops squarely on other top officers, Lieut. Gen. Mahdi Al-Gharawi revealed that deep sectarianism and infighting within the ranks and file of the Iraqi army could be the main reason behind the disaster.
A parliamentary committee formed to investigate the circumstances surrounding the city’s fall and the subsequent rise of IS has meanwhile gone into trouble after accusations by Sunni lawmakers of a hidden political and sectarian agenda.
The revelations and the ensuing row might also have startling implications for the US efforts to help Iraq rebuild its security forces to battle IS and regain territories it had occupied.
In his 3-part interview Lieut. Gen. Al-Gharawi implicated former Defense Minister Sadoun Al-Dulaimi, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen Aboud Gambar, Commander of the Land Forces Maj-Gen. Ali Ghaidan and Governor of Mosul Atheel Al- Nujaifi in IS’ seizure of Mosul.
Al-Gharawi, was in charge of the Nineveh Province Operations Command which had several army and police brigades under its control and tasked to defend Mosul and surrounding towns against IS. Various estimates put the number of soldiers in Nineveh before the IS’s onslaught as 50000-70000, based on official accounts of the military units under the Nineveh Province Operations Command.
Al-Gharawi told Al-Baghdadiya Television network, however, that there were only about 7000 soldiers in Nineveh prior to the attack. He said the force was ill-equipped and he had to supply them with arms and ammunitions bought from the black-market.
“There was no one single piece of artillery or a tank in Mosul,” he said.
On 10 June the terror group seized control of Iraq’s third largest city in a blitz attack putting security forces to flight in a spectacular show of strength against the Shia-led Baghdad government.
The capture of Mosul dealt a serious blow to Baghdad’s efforts to fight IS which has regained ground and momentum in Iraq in the months following a Sunni uprising against the government of former Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
As militants overrun the city, the remaining soldiers discarded uniforms and weapons and fled their posts and camps leaving behind huge quantities of weapons and equipment worth millions of dollars.
Thousands of families, mostly Christians, Kurds and Shia, also fled Mosul towards nearby Kurdish cities. The militants also killed thousands of religious minorities and ordered others to convert to Islam, or pay “tribute” money, or leave Mosul.
At the time soldiers interviewed by the media said they had received orders to quit Mosul after militants captured most of the city including army bases and prisons. The soldiers and the fleeing locals described Mosul as being in total chaos after IS’s seizure.
The Islamic radicals later pushed through and seized vast swathes of territories in four other provinces forcing troops and police to retreat. The Baghdad Shia-led government relied heavily on Iran-baked Shia militia to stave off the IS offensive and regain some of the lost territories.
The imbroglio stunned most Iraqis. Many of them wondered how a hundreds of thousands-strong military who costs the treasury nearly have the national budget annually was defeated by a small, worse-equipped and barely funded foe. Many Iraqis called for bringing those officers who failed to provide leadership and an example and were responsible for the heavy defeat to account.
Al-Maliki, who was also commander in chief of the armed force, refused to take any responsibility or order an investigation. Unabashed, he fought a bitter battle to stay in power after April’s election despite strong opposition to his bid for a third term.
In November, the parliament formed a 16-member committee to investigate the fall of Mosul. At the core of its task is to sort out who in the government and the military leadership were behind the strategic follies in Mosul and the subsequent operational deficiencies in the security forces.
The committee has thus far interviewed Gambar and Ghaidan but the proceedings were postponed after complaints of a sectarian agenda by the Shia head of the committee and its Shia members. Sunni-oriented media accused the panel of trying to implicate Sunni and former Baathist officers and officials in the fall of Mosul.
Last week the parliament added three more Sunni members to the committee in a bid to strike a balance in its makeup and decided to summon all civilian and military officials involved in the Mosul conflict and its aftermath to the inquiry. Some Sunni lawmakers who fear a whitewash demanded that the committee question Al-Maliki who is now vice president and may use his immunity to skip the inquiry.
In his version of the story, Al-Gharawi tried to imply that Al-Maliki was a victim in the situation and blamed top military commanders of deceiving the former prime minister. Al-Gharawi was one of the most trusted generals by Al-Maliki and his testimony would allow suspicions to accelerate.
Accusations to Al-Maliki, however, came from more important sources. Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani had repeatedly said that Al-Maliki was responsible for the quick defeat of the army in Mosul. In several statements and interviews Barzani said he had warned Al-Maliki about the risk of Nineveh province falling and IS movements to the west of the city.
Al-Maliki has denied receiving a phone call from Barzani before IS attack on the city of Mosul. He accused Barzani of complicity in IS’s takeover of Mosul and harbouring “terrorists” in Erbil, Kurdistan’s provincial capital.
However, the blame game provided a rare insight into the Iraqi military’s status and in particular its command, control and communication systems. Though reports about rampant corruption, inefficiency and sectarianism in the Iraqi army have long been rife, the exchange revealed an entirely dysfunctional and demoralized military.
Even before conclusions are drawn by the committee Al-Maliki’s successor Haider Al-Abadi has began to purge the security forces from corrupt and incompetent officers. He had fired dozens of officers and announced the discovery and removal of 50,000 ghost army soldiers from the pay rolls.
Still, this scandalous disclosure about the military’s failure is expected to have severe consequences on efforts to rebuild a professional army and plans to retake Mosul and other areas seized by IS probably in the spring.
It could also undermine efforts to launch national reconciliation and ensure a broader participation of Sunnis in the government and security forces, a demand put by Sunni politicians to participate in Al-Abadi’s government and join in fighting IS.
As Iraqi officials squabble over responsibility for the Mosul’s fall, the pressing question for the Obama administration remains how the chaos inside the Iraqi security forces and mal-functioning of its command will impact the US engagement in Iraq.
The IS’s advances in Iraq prompted President Barack Obama to abandon his earlier policy of non interference in Iraq and reengaged in the war-torn country both militarily and politically. He immediately ordered air strikes against IS and unveiled a strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group.
According to the Obama plan the US will help train, equip and advise the Iraqi security forces in order to give them a psychological boost and improve their combat skills. The plan also calls for arming a Sunni force including members of Saddam Hussein’s army to fight against IS and help stabilize the Sunni-dominated provinces. This approach also entails efforts to allow Sunnis a bigger say in the Baghdad government and a sort of provincial autonomy.
If after eleven years the Iraqi military remains fraught with sectarianism, suspicion and distrust that allowed IS to rise and seize nearly one third of the country, the question is: how can the United States help rebuild it to defeat the terrorist organization without repeating the same ritual.
Back in 2003 and under US pressure, many of the Baath’s ex-officers were allowed to join the new Iraqi army which was established following the dismantling of Saddam’s army. Among them were Al-Gharawi, Ghaidan and Ganbar along with hundreds of officers who later took command of the security forces.
Though these former Saddam’s army officers were Shia, like the three generals in question, many Iraqis remained skeptical about their political loyalty. When the Iraqi army collapsed, it was Shia militia backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who were called to defend the Baghdad government.