Tuesday, August 26, 2014

How Northern Iraq Fell To The Insurgency

When Mosul and Tikrit fell in early June 2014 there were plenty of conspiracy theories to explain why it happened. One was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki let the cities be taken to make an excuse for him to hold onto power. Another was that the Kurds and Sunni politicians worked with the insurgents to push out the federal government forces so that they could seize territory. The truth of the matter was much simpler and depressing. Baghdad did not take the attack upon Mosul seriously. It turned down offers to reinforce the city, while the commanders of the security forces there ended up leaving causing mass desertions and the fall of the city. The federal government then fell into disarray and shock as militants charged south from Mosul into Salahaddin. Nothing was organized to defend Tikrit and other areas in the province, which were quickly conquered too. It wasn’t a plot that led to the de facto division of Iraq, but rather government incompetence in the face of a small yet determined enemy.
Insurgents ran Mosul like a mafia long before the actual attack on the city in June 2014 (Institute for the Study of War)

Mosul was the northern base for the Iraqi insurgency. It was the only urban center it was able to hold onto during and after the Surge. That proved especially important because it also became the main moneymaker for militants who ran protection rackets and oil smuggling rings. By 2009 the Islamic State (IS) the largest remaining armed faction was self-sufficient thanks to its lucrative illegal businesses in the city. By 2014 the insurgency had reconstituted itself and could be said to be the ones really in control of Mosul. The local security forces were intimidated by hundreds of attacks and assassinations, and IS was even stealing their pay. The situation was so bad that by March the Ninewa Operations Command set up special flights for its personnel who lived in Baghdad to fly to and from Mosul because the roads were too dangerous for them to take. This was all part of IS’s Soldiers’ Harvest campaign that it announced in July 2013. Its goals were to attack the ISF and take control of territory. It was able to establish alliances with other insurgent groups such as the Baathist Naqshibandi over their shared desire to overthrow the central government. This was all leading up to a big offensive, which turned out to be far more successful than anyone expected.

The summer campaign started at the beginning of June with raids upon Samarra, Baquba and Ramadi. On June 5, the Islamic State launched an assault on Samarra in Salahaddin early in the morning coming from the Hamrin mountain area of Diyala. It came in a large convoy of trucks with heavy weapons mounted on them attacking three districts of the city simultaneously. It used bulldozers and cranes to remove concrete barriers at the entrance of Samarra, and quickly seized five of seven districts. The ISF fell back to defend the Askari shrine. By the middle of the day Baghdad had sent reinforcements including helicopters and elements of the elite Golden Division driving the militants out. The next day IS attacked the counter-terrorism bureau in Baquba, Diyala starting with a car bomb followed by mortars and gunfire. This was probably an attempt to free imprisoned compatriots, which the group had been doing for over a year now to rebuild its cadres. Finally on June 7, IS seized control of Anbar University in Ramadi. Hundreds of students were held hostage, as others were able to escape the facility. Like in the previous two encounters the siege was eventually broken. These three operations all occurred in predictable locations. By the summer the armed groups had rebuilt themselves in Salahaddin and were operating in all of its districts. Samarra was an especially important target because of the shrine there, which was attacked in 2006 that put the civil war into overdrive. The fighters used their bases in the Hamrin Mountains that was one of the rural areas that the American and Iraqi forces were never able to successfully clear. That also explains the assault in Baquba because the province overall had seen an increase in insurgent activity as well. Finally, there was open fighting in Anbar starting at the very end of 2013. Militants had established themselves in the southern regions of Ramadi, so the attack on the university was easy logistically. Still these large operations back to back to back had not been seen in Iraq for several years all pointing towards the rebuilt capabilities of the militants. They were able to plan, collect intelligence, store resources, and then carry out operations in northern, eastern, and western Anbar literally within hours of each other. Mosul was next and should have been expected given the level of control militants exerted there already.

Students escaping Anbar University during the June IS assault. The attack there along with the ones on Samarra and Baquba marked the beginning of the insurgents summer offensive (EPA)

The insurgents should have never been able to take Mosul in just a few days. They were facing the army’s 2nd Division, the 3rd Federal Police division, and the local police totaling 60,000 on paper. A Peshmerga officer said that only about 1 out of 3 members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) actually showed up to work. This was due to corruption where officers would collect the pay of fake soldiers and police, ISF members being on leave, and other reasons. As noted before, those at their stations or in their bases were besieged by daily attacks meant to intimidate them by the insurgency.

The actual assault on Mosul started June 6 in what IS dubbed the “Battle of Ninewa.” It was aided by elements of the Baathist Naqshibandi, Ansar al-Islam, and the Mujahadeen Army. It began in western Mosul with 5 suicide bombers, followed by mortars on three districts. The militants were able to overrun checkpoints on the western periphery and moved into four sections of the city. Like in Samarra IS quickly moved in heavy equipment to take down concrete barriers at security spots. Despite the heavy clashes the Ninewa Operations Command actually claimed that it had retaken some areas, but that proved false. On the first day the press reported 105 IS fighters killed and around 20 vehicles destroyed, while the ISF lost 10 soldiers and 14 police, along with 70 civilians. The first day just seemed like another charge at a city like the previous attacks on Samarra, Baquba, and Ramadi. The difference was the next day, June 7, heavy fighting renewed in the same areas, and the Kurdish Interior Ministry and United States got word of a large convoy of IS vehicles and fighters crossing from Syria into Ninewa and heading towards Mosul. Some western media reports have painted this as advanced warning of the fall of the city, but the battle was already in its second day by then, its scope was just unknown at the time. Local policemen told Niqash that during the second date of fighting they heard rumors that the Federal Police and army were withdrawing, which led them to fall back to their police stations. Later in the day Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi was photographed waking the streets of Mosul with an AK-47 followed by his bodyguards checking on the situation. June 8 was the day that the insurgents crossed over into the eastern half of the city. The United States was hard at work to get the central government to send in reinforcements, but to no avail. When the Americans told Baghdad of the incoming IS fighters from Syria it said that army would be sending in forces into Mosul, but it would take up to a week. In the meantime the Kurds offered to deploy its Peshmerga to eastern Mosul. This started a political battle, as Baghdad wanted to make sure that the Kurds presence would only be temporary. The result was that nothing was done. On the ground, insurgents were able to take a Federal Police base, and began firing at the provincial council building with RPGs, snipers, and gun trucks. Governor Nujafi was actually inside at that time, but was able to escape. Later in the day militants moved on an army base, the airport, and Badush prison, while the ISF began withdrawing from parts of the city. June 9 was when things began collapsing. Governor Nujafi gave a televised speech calling on the people of Mosul to form armed groups to resist the insurgents. It doesn’t appear anyone responded. Baghdad was still in a state of denial about the situation, and told the Americans that the fighting was under control. Most importantly, General Abboud Qanbar al-Maliki the deputy chief of the army, General Mahdi Gharawi the head of the Ninewa Operations Command, and General Ali Ghidan the ground forces commander who were all in Mosul at the time, jumped on a helicopter and left for Kurdistan. When word spread of their departure, soldiers and police began deserting. The Islamic State also started spreading rumors of its fighters coming from Syria to attack Mosul as part of a psychological warfare operation to demoralize the rank and file members of the ISF. Finally, June 10 was the end of the battle. Militants took the Mosul airport, started freeing prisoners from various jails and Badush prison, while orders were issued for the ISF to withdraw, but not where to go. Many just threw off their uniforms and joined the exodus of civilians who were already fleeing the city. When the battle was all over the Defense Ministry said that it would be sending special forces, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to retake the city in 24 hours. In a final moment of ignominy Baghdad approved the Peshmerga moving into Mosul at 3 am on June 11 after the city had fallen. In the end, a city of 2 million people, with approximately 20,000-30,000 on duty police, Federal Police, and soldiers was taken by just 400 to 1,000 insurgents in five days. The complete lack of leadership by the commanders in Mosul and in Baghdad during the entire crisis was breathtaking, but it didn’t end there.

Discarded uniforms left behind by fleeing members of the ISF in Mosul (Independent)

As soon as Mosul fell the Islamic State and its allies headed south towards Baghdad. Local officials in Tikrit, Salahaddin heard that 3,000 fighters were heading their way, and would be joined by sleeper cells within the city. Inside Tikrit were 3 police regiments of 400 each and a SWAT force. Outside were three army brigades, attack helicopters and 700 special forces at Camp Speicher. On paper that was 10,000 members of the ISF, but like in Mosul there were only 5,000-6,000 actually on duty. On June 9 an alert was put out for all the police in the city to report to duty. On June 10 when word spread that Mosul had fallen, members of the ISF began deserting not only in Tikrit but Baiji as well. That night the latter was taken by the insurgents with barely a fight. The militants were able to seize the army weapons depot there after it was abandoned. June 11 the Salahaddin provincial police commander General Juma al-Dulaimi went to Camp Speicher calling on the army to help defend Tikrit. The Speicher commander called for help to his superior, but received no orders. Later that day, gunmen on 30 trucks entered the city from several directions and took Tikrit without a shot being fired. It turned out most of the forces at Speicher surrendered. They were then taken to downtown Tikrit and separated by where they came from and by sect. The Sunnis from Baghdad and Shiite were executed, which was later spread on social media by the Islamic State. Alam east of Tikrit was the only area that did not give up. Instead it held out for two weeks. It was during this time that the adviser to the Salahaddin governor for women’s affair Umaya Naji was killed in a gun battle. After intense fighting the defenders of Alam were forced to give up when IS captured some of their family members who were trying to escape and threatened to kill them. Before that a helicopter from Baghdad arrived and took away high level officials and ISF commanders. The insurgents kept heading south afterward and were finally stopped outside of Samarra after half of Salahaddin had fallen. The collapse in Salahaddin was even more devastating than Mosul. That city held out for five days, while Baiji and Tikrit just gave up. The ISF were simply spooked at the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, and believed that they were facing a massive force of militants backed by local fighters. Instead of fighting they decided to flee. Again, the local commanders failed and Baghdad did nothing. It didn’t respond until June 27 with an ill planned attempt to retake Tikrit.

Images like these were spread on social media by IS of their execution of the ISF members from Camp Speicher

When it was all over the Iraqi Security Forces had largely collapsed, a large section of northern Iraq was under militant control, the Kurds seemed initially happy, while Baghdad was in denial. Brett McGurk said that 5 army and Federal Police divisions out of 18 had disintegrated, but the number might have been as high as 7. The ISF, which had already turned to militias to help with Anbar now began using them across central Iraq, because they were so desperate for manpower. Even parties that had not been involved before such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrists mobilized their forces in the face of the existential threat posed by the Islamic State. Into the void in the north stepped the Kurds who secured the disputed territories that had been abandoned by the ISF. President Massoud Barzani gave a speech about Article 140 finally being implemented, and there were plenty of articles about how this might have been a victory for the Kurds, because they had gained Kirkuk, which was another step towards independence. It would take a while, but the IS led attack upon Jalawla in Diyala and Sinjar in Ninewa proved most of these predictions false. In Baghdad, the government turned to propaganda to make up for its losses. To this day the Iraqi papers are full of official releases about victory after victory with thousands of insurgents being killed. That didn’t make up for the fact that it did nothing during the five day battle for Mosul, and then repeated the failure with Baiji and Tikrit. There was nothing from the ISF generals who either fled in the middle of the battle like in Mosul, or gave up in Baiji and Tikrit. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must also bear a huge amount of blame. He was more concerned with his political disputes with the Kurds than ask for their assistance to save Mosul. More importantly he put in political appointees as commanders throughout the security forces to coup proof his administration. These men proved to be incompetent. It wasn’t a conspiracy that led to the fall of Mosul, but a basic failure of leadership that is to be blamed.


Abbas, Yasir and Trombly, Dan, “Inside the Collapse of the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Division,” War On The Rocks, 7/1/14

Ahmad, Zanko, “interview with senior kurdish politician: Baghdad ‘wanted mosul to be captured by extremists,’” Niqash, 6/11/14

AIN, “Maliki: We will re-control Mosul within 24 hours,” 6/10/14
- “Urgent….ISIL control banks in Nineveh,” 6/10/14

Allam, Hannah, “Officials: U.S. knew 3 days before Mosul fell that Islamic State was moving forces,” McClatchy Newspapers, 7/23/14

Buratha News, “Security chiefs and officers expressing regret and dissatisfaction with the attitude of Ghaidan Qanbar and Ghraoui,” 6/10/14
- “Terrorists seize weapon caches belonging to the army in northern Baiji,” 6/10/14

Habib, Mustafa, “did they or didn’t they? iraqi army did not desert mosul, they were ordered to leave,” Niqash, 6/15/14

Iraq Times, “Corruption of hundreds of millions of dinars in salaries of employees of the local police and traffic in the province of Nineveh,” 3/12/14
- “News of the fall of the Mosul airport to elements of Daash,” 6/10/14

Knights, Michael, “Iraq War III Has Now Begun,” Foreign Policy, 6/11/14

Al Mada, “Daash controls the Nineveh province building and the right side of Mosul fully,” 6/10/14
- “Officer tells what happened in Mosul: leadership ordered us to evacuate and leave the equipment.. and soldiers disguised with parents,” 6/11/14

McGurk, Brett, “Statement for the Record: Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing: Terrorist March in Iraq: the U.S. Response, 7/23/14

Radio Nawa, “Defense: special forces heading to the city of Mosul to expel Daash,” 6/10/14

Al Rafidayn, "Maliki's office agrees to conduct flights to transport security personnel in Mosul," 3/25/14

Roggio, Bill, “Analysis: ISIS, allies reviving ‘Baghdad belts’ battle plan,” Long War Journal, 6/14/14

Rudaw, “Rudaw in Mosul: Jihadists In Charge of Sunni Heartland,” 6/13/14

Shamdeen, Nawzat, “inside mosul: how did extremists take over iraq’s second-biggest city in just five days?” Niqash, 6/10/14

Al-Sinjary, Ziad, “Insurgents in Iraq overrun Mosul provincial government headquarters,” Reuters, 6/9/14

Slater, Andrew, “The Paper Tiger of the Tigris: How ISIS Took Tikrit Without a Fight,” Daily Beast, 6/29/14

1 comment:

Anoni said...

Finally, a comprehensive account of what actually happened. You couldn't make this stuff up...the only person who had the balls to fight was the advisor for womens affairs. I wonder how the people who voted for Maliki feel - I remember a lot of those living even in western countries expressed a lot of support for him as a strong and effective leader. Southern Iraq is now basically being defended by Shiite militias, and it's only a matter of time before they assume the rest of political control of Iraq. Any political settlement now is surely unthinkable.