On Day Four of clashes in Mosul between encroaching jihadists and Iraqi security forces, two officers visited an outpost of the Iraqi 2nd Division’s logistics battalion with bad news: they said that all senior commanders had fled.
Stunned and confused, the men called headquarters and received the same information, that all officers colonel and above had abandoned their posts. This evaporation of the officer corps, followed quickly by the rank and file, gave wide berth to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the extremist group whose capture of northwestern Iraqi territories has brought the country once again to the brink of civil war.
For the ordinary Iraqi soldiers who followed their officers in flight, the unraveling of their nation also brought a deep sense of personal shame and betrayal, said Pvt. First Class Mohammed al Nasseri, who insisted he be identified by a pseudonym because the government has threatened to prosecute deserters.
“I wish I’d been killed rather than live with the humiliation of this return,” Nasseri said.
He shared his account by telephone from his southern hometown of Nasiriyah, where he was still struggling to come to terms with his decision to flee even as he braced for a stream of friends and relatives to show up as part of a tradition to welcome loved ones back from an arduous journey.
Nasseri’s anger was fresh, and he couldn’t help but compare the performance of the Iraqi officers with that of the U.S. military leaders who trained him and the U.S. forces he fought alongside as part of a quick-response team in the insurgent flashpoint of Fallujah years ago. His account, detailed but impossible to independently confirm, painted a picture of a corrupt military leadership that shook down soldiers for cash, kept nonexistent service members on the payroll, and showed up to standard only on the rare occasion Baghdad sends an inspector.
Had the Iraqi military brass in Mosul been chosen because of competency rather than cronyism, Nasseri suggested, perhaps the Islamic State’s march toward Baghdad could’ve been halted, or at least stalled.
“I know what I need to know about fighting in a city,” Nasseri said. “I fought side by side with Americans. Their military has leaders that tell the soldiers what the plan is, and fight. We don’t. There were many more terrorists in Fallujah and the fight was over in a month. (Mosul) wouldn’t have been a big problem if we had leaders.”
Five days after Mosul’s fall late Monday, Iraq on Saturday remained a country spinning apart. While spokesmen for the Iraqi military insisted that the army had halted the ISIS advance at such key towns as Samarra, 70 miles from Baghdad, there was scant evidence of any significant combat and little sign that ISIS and its allies from a collection of Sunni Muslim militias had been pushed back in any significant way.
The Reuters news agency reported fighting at Udhaim, 60 miles north of Baghdad, and Peter Bouckeart, the emergencies director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, posted on Facebook that ISIS was receiving mortar fire in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Baghdad. Reuters, citing Tikrit residents, said ISIS forces had booby trapped the entrances to the city in preparation for an assault from the Iraqi military.
In an email to McClatchy, an Iraqi journalist reported that the capital remained “stunned” at ISIS’s rapid advance. Thousands of Shiite Muslims have mustered in the city, answering a call from the country’s most important Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to bolster the Iraqi army. “If the fight comes to Baghdad there will be carnage,” the journalist wrote, asking not to be identified by name out of security concerns.
Nasseri’s account of his flight makes it seem unlikely that the Iraqi army would soon gain the initiative.
Nasseri said his battalion was supposed to be focused on supplies and transportation, but that the Iraqi military is so poorly organized that he and other logistics soldiers often were sent on raids and other combat-related missions. Nasseri, who said his unit was made up almost exclusively of Shiite Muslims from the fairly homogenous south, said he had spent the past seven years in Mosul and had come to know well the diverse city of Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
Nasseri served on the east side of Mosul, in a district named “Saddam,” a vestige of the former regime of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. On June 5, the first day of the jihadists’ foray into Mosul, a commercial city of 2 million that had long been an Islamic State cash cow and recruiting ground, Nasseri’s unit got word of suspicious men openly carrying arms in the Saddam district.
“We gathered in the division’s headquarters and we headed there,” Nasseri recalled. “I saw two of the gunmen upon our arrival. We fought from street to street as we chased them. They went into a house, but we didn’t go after them.”
Instead, Nasseri said, a brigadier general called in reinforcements that specialize in defusing bombs; he said he thought a helicopter gunship also attacked the house because of fears that the extremist fighters were strapped with explosives. For the next four hours, Nasseri said, his unit moved from rooftop to rooftop as gunfire crackled around them.
“By the end of the night, we secured the neighborhood,” he said. “We stayed there until the fall of Mosul.”
Nasseri said that a local man would come out to check on the soldiers — he was welcomed because he was a Kurd from the Birwari tribe, not like local Sunni Arabs who are more hostile to what they view as a Shiite sectarian military. But the Kurdish stranger’s in-depth knowledge of the military’s Mosul operations was unsettling, Nasseri said.
“He knew too much,” Nasseri said, recalling that the man knew of an attack on a general, which soldiers had been killed and insider scuttle from the division. When questioned about his sources of information, Nasseri said, the man explained that he was friends with a captain from the division.
Then, on the night Mosul fell, the Kurd returned to the unit and made an unusual request.
“He asked me to leave,” Nasseri recalled. “He said, ‘Go back to your children and wife. Everything is over. Protect your life.’ He kept insisting on this for four hours that night.”
The man gave Nasseri his phone number and made him promise to call.
Later, the two officers visited and told the soldiers that they were the last commanders who hadn’t deserted. “The skies were filled with bullets; the sky turned red,” Nasser said of his last night in Mosul. “I told my fellow soldiers, ‘Don’t be afraid, these are our bullets. Our guys are retreating.’ We shoot everywhere to secure ourselves.”
Nasseri said he stopped a Humvee and asked the soldiers inside what had prompted them to leave: Did you see gunmen? Did you engage in clashes?
“They said no, but that all the generals had fled and no one was left,” Nasseri said.
His unit linked up with a nearby battalion of the Kurdish militia known as peshmerga. Nasseri said he still couldn’t figure out the mass flight — from where he stood, he saw no gunmen, the army’s posts were standing and the clashes seemed concentrated on the west side of Mosul.
Nevertheless, he said, he handed his uniform, military ID and rifle to a friend in a small Christian village, asking him to keep it safe. Nasseri then set off on an uncertain path south, a journey that typically cost him 60,000 Iraqi dinars, about $50, but this time would require 1 million dinars, around $860, all the funds he had on him.
Nasseri said the Kurdish fighters wouldn’t allow the fleeing soldiers to escape through their territories, so they were forced to go back through Mosul. He harbors bitterness toward the Kurds for denying the Iraqi troops access and said that rumors abound of Kurdish complicity in the assault on Mosul, which could strengthen their case for an independent state if the central government in Baghdad collapses.
“I took a cab, then rode in the back of a pickup truck from village to village, and then walked for miles and miles,” Nasseri recalled, rattling off some of his stops, including Kirkuk and Khanaqin. “I can’t recall the names of all the towns; there were so many. I was thirsty, tired and afraid.”
Nasseri said he saw no gunmen, just an eerie tableau of abandoned police vehicles, discarded uniforms and Humvees whose operators had left in a hurry. Opportunistic drivers charged deserters exponentially more than the usual fares: “They knew we would pay, and we did.”
Only now that he’s safely back home in Nasiriyah has he had a moment to go over those heady events and realize the implications for the country. He called the Kurdish stranger who’d tipped him off about the collapse; he said the man finally admitted that he was a major from the Kurdish intelligence apparatus.
Nasseri said he’d return to the fight, but only because of Sistani’s call to arms — not for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or for the “corrupt” Shiite political elite he holds responsible for the military’s collapse.
“We felt that we were sold off. The army is broken,” Nasseri said. “I’m still in shock. I can’t understand it — how did all of this happen, and so fast?”
“It is true I was there for the salary,” Nasseri added, “but I was honored to fight the terrorists.”
(Mohammed Al Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent; he reported from Columbia, S.C. Hannah Allam reported from Plano, Texas. A McClatchy special correspondent whose name is being withheld for security reasons reported from Baghdad.)