Some of the 30,000 Iraqi soldiers who retreated as a much smaller force of Sunni militants overran Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul last week told VICE News that they fled after being "abandoned" by their commanders.
Many sought refuge in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil 50 miles east.
There, in a cheap hotel, which is now full of soldiers, Kamel, a corporal in his late 40s said that that senior officers at his station around 10 miles outside Mosul disappeared before the rank and file even knew the city was under attack.
As a result, when the troops in his company heard that key positions in Mosul had fallen to the militant force, which is headed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they fled along with thousands of civilians to Erbil.
“We had no orders, and didn’t know what to do, so we went,” he said. “There was no real fight. We left, and ISIS replaced us."
Iraqi security forces personnel across the city did the same. It was not an orderly retreat.
Police and soldiers stripped out of their uniforms and abandoned their equipment on the road as they fled.
Evidence of this hurried disrobing is strewn around a checkpoint marking the beginning of Iraqi Kurdistan on the highway to Erbil. Camouflaged fatigues, body armor, berets, US-issue boots and even standard pattern underwear are piled in the dust around some breeze block ruins and a broken down truck.
Akram, a junior officer with the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, was on duty at the checkpoint when the retreating Iraqis arrived and told VICE News that the first of what ended up being around 180 Iraqi security forces vehicles appeared at around midnight on June 9.
Its occupants warned the Kurdish fighters that ISIS was coming, and suggested that they should run too.
“We could see in their faces that they were scared,” Akram said. Undeterred, he and the 12 others holding the Peshmerga position stayed put.
The Iraqis then handed the Kurds their guns, changed into civilian clothing and abandoned any and everything army-issue, he added: “They gave us their weapons too, they just wanted to go.”
The complete collapse of Iraqi forces in Mosul came as a shock to many observers, particularly as it was apparently at the hands of less than a thousand gunmen and they, along with the rest of the country's military had benefited from $25 billion worth of training and equipment provided by the US before it withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.
Colonel Mahmoud Ahmed Hussein, who heads the Kurdish fighters on the front between Erbil and Mosul, told VICE News that according to the information he had access to, the Sunni militant force numbered just 500 when it took the city.
“ISIS is not that powerful, the weakness is the Iraqi army… which couldn’t fight for more than an hour before they left and they even left their weapons,” he said, adding that it is likely stronger after local supporters joined up.
Retelling the story, the Kurds couldn’t hide their amusement at what they described as the Iraqi troops running without even having seen their enemy, despite such overwhelming odds in their favor.
But why did the Iraqi army retreat so easily?
Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk in Iraq’s northeast on June 12, according to a reports. Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Hussein blamed the lack of cohesion and willingness from the troops fight for their country.
External observers pointed to deep-seated discipline issues, low morale and poor training, despite the US investment.
Iraqi soldiers, however, said they were betrayed by some their commanders in the area, who they accused of abandoning their posts and leaving troops without proper support or leadership.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense did not respond to request for comment from VICE News.
Unable to Fight
Ahmed Abdul Khadir, 34, a corporal with the formerly Mosul-based Second Division sporting a clipped moustache growing out into stubble, told VICE News that his company of around 200 men had battled ISIS for three days while the militants attempted to advance on the city.
There were 200 vehicles-worth of fighters, he said, and all were well equipped and fought hard.
Eventually, the Iraqi men ran low on supplies, and then, on bullets.
“After that, we couldn’t resist,” he said. “so we had to retreat, we had no choice.”
Khadir spoke with VICE News outside the Iraqi Airways office in Erbil, where large groups of men, including many soldiers who had been part of the force tasked with defending Mosul, waited to buy flights to Baghdad and elsewhere.
Those with army IDs were given priority so that they could travel to the capital and join the troops defending it against an expected ISIS-led attack.
Nearby, Saad Ahmed Ali, 46, an officer also in the Second Division who had fought alongside Khadir but now exchanged his uniform for a suit and freshly pressed shirt, told VICE News that while they were battling ISIS, he and his comrades had requested airstrikes and logistical support from their superiors.
Commanders told them help was incoming, he said, but it never arrived.
The commanders themselves, he added, quickly went from barely present to completely absent.
“I don’t understand why, they didn’t even fight for an hour. It was only low ranking troops left at the end,” Ali said.
The men in his company first fell back to Mosul itself, but by this point ISIS had overrun the city and raised their black flag everywhere.
“We saw so many ISIS banners,”he recalled. "So we fled out of fear of them.”
Ali describes ISIS as a terrorist group and maintains that it was not lack of will to fight or discipline that caused the Iraqi army retreat, but treacherous leadership.
“We were well trained by the US and proud of it. But this wasn’t a problem of equipment or training, it was a problem of betrayal by leaders,” he said.
Khadir echoes his remarks. Both men plan to travel to Baghdad and rejoin the army.
Neither of the soldiers claim to know exactly why their commanders bolted, but they, and many others, suspect that it is because many are Baathists, remnants of the Hussein-era who remain in military command positions but oppose Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government.
They have heard rumors that the Baathist officers sabotaged the defense of Mosul before joining up with anti-government militias.
The allegations correspond with a New York Times report which said Baathist elements had joined in a coalition of ISIS-led Sunni militant groups aiming to topple Maliki.
Many of the troops are bitter about this perceived double-cross.
"We believe we’ve been sold out, but we don’t know how... our leaders betrayed the army and betrayed us,” said Kamel, relaxing on a sofa in the corner of the Erbil hotel.
Still, he too plans to rejoin the army in Northern Iraq if it is re-established. This time, he says, he hopes it will be “more like a pyramid,” with officers at the top, not just men on the bottom.