Iraqi soldiers say they can hardly live with the shame of their rout under an onslaught of Islamic militants. Their commanders disappeared. Pleas for more ammunition went unanswered. Troops ran from post to post only to find them already taken by gunmen, forcing them to flee.
“I see it in the eyes of my family, relatives, and neighbors,” one lieutenant colonel who escaped the militants’ sweep over the northern city of Mosul told the Associated Press. “I am as broken and ashamed as a bride who is not a virgin on her wedding night.”
Iraq’s military has been deeply shaken by its collapse in the face of fighters led by the al-Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), who in the course of just over a week overran Mosul then stormed toward Baghdad, seizing town after town, several cities, and army base after army base throughout a large swath of territory.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to turn the armed forces around. He told army commanders and volunteers in a rally south of Baghdad this week that the rout served as a much needed wake-up call. He said it would lead to the exposure and punishment of military commanders and politicians he accuses of betraying their country. He has also cryptically blamed conspiracies, acts of treachery, and meddling Arab nations.
The blow was particularly harsh in a country that has traditionally prided itself on the prowess of its soldiers, with the faith of its Shiite majority immersed in a narrative of martyrdom rooted in the fabled bravery of its saints.
The breakdown stems from multiple factors. Even after the United States spent billions of dollars training the armed forces during its 2003-2011 military presence in Iraq, the 1 million-member army and police force remain riven by sectarian discontents, corruption, and a lack of professionalism. Sunnis in the armed forces are hesitant to be seen fighting for al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, and Shiite troops deployed in Sunni areas feel isolated and vulnerable in hostile territory.
Among the troops who escaped Mosul, the humiliation hits deep.
The lieutenant colonel, a Shiite who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals, had been stationed at an air base in Mosul. His troops received orders to pull out and fall back to their division headquarters, but when they got there, they found it had already been captured by militants who were looting its arsenals. So he and his comrades fled to the city of Kirkuk, to the southeast, then proceeded to Baghdad.
He said they were detained briefly at a checkpoint near the capital and questioned by other soldiers about why they fled—a further shame.
“I have been fighting in Mosul for five years, we never ran away,” he said. “Some of us were killed and injured, but we never ran away. Now, people tell me we are cowards, can you imagine? I cannot sleep. Death is more merciful.”