IBRIL: Iraq is facing its gravest test since the US-led invasion more than a decade ago, after its army capitulated to Islamist insurgents who have seized four cities and pillaged military bases and banks, in a lightning campaign which seems poised to fuel a cross-border insurgency endangering the entire region.
Militants seized the Iraqi city of Tikrit yesterday but their assault on Samarra was repulsed as a lightning jihadist offensive launched in Mosul swept closer to Baghdad.
The extent of the Iraqi army’s defeat at the hands of militants from ISIL became clear when officials in Baghdad conceded that insurgents had stripped the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jails and may have seized up to $480m in banknotes from the city’s banks.
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers — roughly 30,000 men — simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. ISIL extremists roamed freely yesterday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq’s second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.
Militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as over half a million people to flee their homes. The speed with which ISIL and its allies have advanced has sent alarm bells ringing not only in Baghdad but in Western capitals.
In a statement on Twitter, ISIL vowed that it would “not stop this series of blessed invasions” that has seen the fall of the whole of Nineveh province in the north and swathes of Kirkuk and Saleheddin provinces further south.
Tikrit —hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein — was the second provincial capital to fall. “All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants,” a police colonel said of the Salaheddin provincial capital, which lies roughly half way between Baghdad and Mosul.
Senior government officials in Baghdad were shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq’s borders.
In a day of extraordinary developments, ISIL gunmen also encircled the city of Deir El Zour across the border in Syria, kidnapped 80 Turkish citizens in two mass abductions, made advances in two other provinces and claimed to have successfully smuggled a huge weapons haul to eastern Syria’s Hassaka province.
In Tikrit. they quickly set up checkpoints, sacked government buildings and filled trucks with weapons and cash, some of which were quickly dispatched to Syria.
Militants also destroyed a police station in Baiji, site of Iraq’s largest refinery. Local officials said the insurgents withdrew yesterday after local tribal leaders persuaded them not to seize the refinery and power stations.
At least half a million residents of northern Iraq are reported to be on the move, with most attempting to flee to the Kurdish far north where border officials were overwhelmed and expecting refugee numbers to increase sharply in coming days. The UN said it was scrambling to deal with the crisis. As security unravelled in the country’s north and centre, Shia Islamic leader Muqtada Al Sadr threatened to reform the Mahdi army.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari urged Kurdish and central government leaders to set aside their differences to deal with the “mortal threat” facing the country. Kurdish authorities were letting nearly all new arrivals enter in an early sign of closer than normal cooperation.
For a second day, the road between Mosul and Kirkuk was choked with cars full of families who described chaos in the city as troops beat an undignified retreat. Abu Abdulla, a 55-year-old who had just arrived in Irbil, said: “Suddenly the army withdrew and there was no army nor police, just the militants; we don’t know where they are from; they are masked.”
ISIL released footage of large numbers of weapons and armoured military vehicles being received by members in eastern Syria, confirming fears that the looted weapons would fuel the insurgency on both sides of an increasingly irrelevant border. Sources in the Syrian city of Hassaka confirmed to the Guardian that large convoys of trucks carrying weapons arrived on Tuesday and were met by a senior Isis figure, Omar Al Chechani.
Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki accused some senior military figures of “negligence” and “betrayal”. “I know the reasons why the army collapsed,” Maliki said. “But now is not the time to point the blame to whoever ordered the army to fall back. Even if it’s a ploy, the generals who are responsible must be held accountable. A conspiracy has led ISIL to occupy Mosul. Whoever is responsible will not get away with that they did.”
Most of the weapons seized by ISIL were taken from the Al Qayara base in Mosul, the fourth largest in the country, after two divisions of the Iraqi army fled the city en masse on Tuesday. The haul included armoured humvees, rockets, tonnes of ammunition and assault weapons. Evidence of the large-scale desertion remained littered across the streets of the central city, with flak jackets, camouflage uniforms and ammunition clips being held up by insurgents as they celebrated their victory.