BAGHDAD — Panic swept the military base as the soldiers' cell phones sounded off. The messages were all the same, one sergeant remembered: "Da'esh has arrived."
Da'esh is the Arabic acronym for the al-Qaeda offshoot that has swept through northern Iraq: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The messages arrived on June 10, and the soldiers belonged to an infantry division at a sprawling base called al-Ghazlany in suburbs of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. They were part of the first line of defense, if the northern city fell, against an ISIS push inward, toward Tikrit, Samarra, and Baghdad.
Word that ISIS had taken Mosul — and opened its prisons, freeing thousands of extremists — shook the soldiers despite the Iraqi army's far superior numbers and firepower. The sergeant called for reinforcements. The response from his commander — dabber halak, "you're on your own" — sparked chaos as soldiers dropped their weapons and fled. Taking off his uniform, the sergeant joined an exodus of civilians on foot, trying to blend in. He saw masked gunmen looting army vehicles as he made his way north from Mosul. The militants meanwhile surged south, meeting little resistance until they were halted 40 miles from Baghdad, where they remain locked in battle with government forces and allied militias today.
Speaking by phone from the northern city of Sinjar, where he had taken refuge with his family, the sergeant said he'd lost faith in the Iraqi army — trained and equipped by the U.S. government at a cost of $25 billion, and intended as its legacy of a stable and unified Iraq. The quarter-million-strong army had failed to support its men on the Mosul battlefield; the soldier wondered how it could have retreated so suddenly. "Nobody could have imagined that such a large number of soldiers, with so many weapons, could collapse so swiftly," said the sergeant, who requested anonymity, fearing repercussions from both ISIS and the Iraqi government. "There must be some treachery."
Interviews with deserters and officers who tentatively continue to serve show the fear and disillusionment that, two weeks on from the Mosul disaster, are plaguing the Iraqi military. While ISIS has managed to intimidate the security forces on one hand, the Mosul collapse has eroded confidence in the military and its leadership on the other, creating a climate of demoralization among the ranks as the military braces to defend Baghdad and plans a counterattack. Many soldiers have already deserted; some who remain say they may soon do the same.
Another infantry soldier who fled the Ghazlany base — crawling in a panic beneath barbed wire as soldiers fleeing the main entrance were gunned down by insurgents — said by phone that he was "deeply saddened" by the performance of the army to which he'd dedicated more than a decade and doubted he would return. "The base was full of new and modern weapons. We had enough firepower and will to resist," said the soldier, a staff sergeant. "But I don't know — what happened? There is a mystery here."
Intimidation at the hands of ISIS goes well beyond the battlefield.
A captain from Fallujah said that ISIS's first priority when it advances on a city is to terrorize members of the security forces and their families. While international attention zeroed in on ISIS when it captured Mosul, the stage was set for its takeover of much of Iraq's Sunni heartland when it moved into Fallujah — home to some of the deadliest fighting of the Iraq War — early this year. Immediately, the captain remembered, ISIS sent messengers into the streets, announcing that any members of the security forces should publicly renounce their positions and declare tawbah — repentance — or be killed.
There was no hiding, the captain said: ISIS knew who all the police and soldiers were and where their families lived. He was posted elsewhere at the time, but he quickly moved his family to Baghdad. As soon as they left, ISIS fighters moved into his home. "It is difficult to hide yourself," the captain said. "They have agents and spies everywhere."
The captain, who was on leave in Baghdad, spoke at an upscale hotel in the city center — and he said it was one of the rare times he ventured outside his home. When a car had arrived earlier to pick him up for the meeting, his family had peered worriedly from the windows. The captain believed that the deadly reach of the ISIS militants extended to Baghdad — that they tracked his movements and knew where he lived. He said that ISIS had access to databases and intelligence that let them know the name, rank, home address and even salary of everyone who served.
The combination of this intimidation and the military's defeat in Mosul made the captain deeply concerned about being ordered to battle. "Everyone in the military has the same fear," he said. "What if I am called to fight?"
The captain said his response to that order might be to leave the country. "It's a terrible thought to have to leave your country and your home and your history behind because of these barbarians," he said.
The same deep-seated intimidation at the hands of ISIS likely sped the fall of Mosul too. One resident who fled to Baghdad last week remembered masked men in Iraqi army uniforms working alongside the insurgents — security forces would have been shaken by the thought that even some of their colleagues were on ISIS's side. While fear plagued the army, especially those from areas under ISIS's influence, it would have been far worse for police, who lived within communities that were being overrun. Three members of the federal police still living in Mosul, contacted through an intermediary, declined to speak because they believed that ISIS was monitoring their phones.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center who studies ISIS, said that violence and intimidation of security forces was a key part of the group's strategy in Iraq. "ISIS has placed a strong focus upon establishing underground networks capable of collecting and collating intelligence and of exerting intimidation tactics against those in authority — both government and military. Iraqis have long alleged that ISIS maintains moles within the intelligence and military services, which has allowed them to compile extensive databases of the identities, addresses, and familial backgrounds of security force personnel across vast swathes of the country," Lister said.
"It fits neatly within their overall objective of totally undermining government apparatus morale while simultaneously exerting covert influence on a societal level," Lister added. "Mosul was perhaps the best example of this strategy in reality, as ISIS was said to have had the information and access to nearly any single government representative and member of the military in the entire city. In fact, the extensive scale of ISIS's influence in Mosul was instrumental in encouraging the military to simply collapse all at once, leaving a vacuum for ISIS and other armed forces to fill."
Shirwan Kamil al-Waely, an Iraqi politician and former minister of national security, said that he believed ISIS has "progressed enough" in its infiltration of the state to "reach this kind of personal information for anyone."
Some senior members of the security forces in Mosul may indeed have allied with ISIS — the suspicion of many soldiers who allege a conspiracy. ISIS has aligned with a broad group of Sunni militants in Iraq, from powerful local tribes to former officers from the Saddam Hussein era. But Waely said that corruption as well as inadequate training and resources within the armed forces likely was the main cause of the defeat in Mosul. "It wasn't a well-organized withdrawal," he said. "It was a total collapse."
The result is a crisis in confidence across the military's ranks, he added. "The morale of the soldiers is in a very difficult place right now," he said. "It will take time to rebuild."
A lieutenant from another base on Mosul's outskirts recounted how he and his comrades had been ready to take on ISIS, even though they felt certain they would die, until the order for evacuation came. "We decided to fight until the last bullet we have. And we were ready for that," he said in an interview in Baghdad.
He still wanted to fight ISIS: "I still have the same determination and energy." He had also lost confidence in the army, and he worried for his family. He was considering deserting, he said. "I am between an anvil and a hammer."
With additional reporting by Saad Taha in Baghdad.