The oil refinery had a guard force of some 250 personnel. Reports suggest ISIS sent a delegation of local tribal sheikhs to Baiji to convince them to withdraw, suggesting a level of cooperation between the tribes and ISIS. If accurate, this represents a further threat to regional security. The reports indicate the security personnel have agreed to pull out on the condition that they were transferred safely to another town.
ISIS are likely to replicate their previous actions in the Deir Ezzor oil fields in Syria, by trying to seize key oil and gas infrastructure both for cash generation and also as potential bargaining chips; retaking such installations by force could cause critical damage to Iraq’s economy.
The scale and speed of the collapse of Mosul’s defenses cannot be underestimated. Yesterday there was a plaintive headline in the Iraqi media that simply read: “Communications lost with officials in Nineveh.” All officials’ phones in Nineveh province are now switched off.
ISIS now controls the west of Iraq’s second-largest city and are rapidly moving to secure other key terrain south of Mosul and in Kirkuk, which sits on a super-giant oilfield.
Yesterday Iraqi PM Nuri Al-Maliki asked a stunned parliament to declare a state of emergency after ISIS and—equally worryingly, their allies—overran a military base and freed hundreds of prisoners.
Maliki said: “We will not allow Mosul to be under the banner of terrorism. We call on all international organizations to support Iraq and its stance in fighting terrorism. The entire world will suffer if terrorism spreads.” He also said Baghdad would arm civilians who volunteered “to defend the homeland and defeat terrorism.”
Two Iraqi army officers told Western journalists that the security forces had received orders to leave Mosul after ISIS captured the Ghizlani army base in southern Mosul and freed several hundred prisoners from a high-security prison.
One pro-ISIS Twitter feed said ISIS had released about 3,000 people from three prisons, although other estimates were lower. The really bad news is these escapees were identified by a police source as belonging mainly to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, adding further seasoned and motivated fighters to the latter’s ranks.
An official in the Ministry of the Interior bluntly told AFP that “the city of Mosul is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants.” As Maliki is the Minister of the Interior as well as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, there seems to be some nuanced criticism in that statement. That criticism might soon snowball.
As the army and police withdrew from Mosul they adopted scorched-earth tactics, setting fire to fuel and ammunition depots to prevent the extremists from gaining access to them.
Other Iraqi security forces were reported to have abandoned their posts; they took off their uniforms and ran away as ISIS overran the provincial government headquarters and other key buildings.
The morale of the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul has clearly collapsed, and they are running scared from a fighting force that is better trained, better led, better organized and better motivated.
ISIS has honed its hit-and-run tactics in what the British Army call Fighting In Built-Up Areas (FIBUA) in Syria, and has more of a stomach for the close-quarter mayhem that this entails.
The Iraqi army lacks FIBUA training and no longer has UK or US forces to call upon, nor does it have the intelligence collection and exploitation capability needed to find, fix and destroy ISIS.
Reuters quoted an army colonel at the local military headquarters as saying: “We have lost Mosul this morning. Army and police forces left their positions and ISIS terrorists are in full control. It’s a total collapse for the security forces.”
Military, police and security sources reported that ISIS extremists, armed with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, now were in control of almost all military and police checkpoints in and around Mosul.
The fall of Mosul is a body blow to Baghdad’s increasingly flawed attempts to counter the bushfire of Sunni extremism that is raging out of control across the west and north of Iraq. ISIS now dominates and controls territory in eastern Syria and western and northern Iraq: the site of the Islamist Caliphate they are trying to create.
Equally worrying as the militant group’s ability to overrun army bases is the fact that ISIS has allied with other extremist groups, thus exponentially increasing the threat they pose—not forgetting the fresh blood they have released from prison, who, to a man, will want revenge on the Shi’ite-dominated government.
As a result of the violence, thousands of families are fleeing or have already fled Mosul, causing gridlock on the choked roads leading towards Kurdistan, which shares a border with Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.
The Governor of Mosul, Athil Al-Nujaifi, was one of those who fled, and he is now reported to be in Duhok, Kurdistan. Iraqi soldiers who fled Mosul have asked the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, for protection. On Monday, Nujaifi made a televised plea to the people of Mosul to fight ISIS, and only narrowly escaped being trapped in his provincial headquarters in the city after ISIS surrounded it late Monday.
The Peshmerga is currently deployed on the outskirts of Mosul, waiting for orders from Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. The Peshmerga’s reaction to the violence in Mosul will be a significant indicator of how Erbil intends to manage the situation.
Osama Al-Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Iraqi’s parliament and an outspoken critic of Maliki, described Iraqi Army and police personnel’s’ abandonment of their posts in Mosul as “a dereliction of duty.” Nujaifi said he had asked the US ambassador in Baghdad for help in order to stop what he described as “a foreign invasion by ISIS.”
However, there will be a good deal of domestic and international political concern about declaring the state of emergency, which in reality means granting Maliki even more sweeping powers. And once he has those powers, many will worry that he will find it hard to give them up.
In the meantime, Maliki is coming under pressure from his political opponents, who are asking how ISIS has managed to achieve such a series of devastating operational successes: first Fallujah, then Ramadi, and now Mosul.
The attack on Mosul is a strategic, military and propaganda victory for ISIS. It is a strategic, military and propaganda disaster for Baghdad.
Maliki has also called on the international community to support Iraq in its war against ISIS—he specifically called on the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League to support Iraq while it fights ISIS. Quite how he expects them to do this is not clear.
A more uncomfortable question is why these organizations would decide to help Iraq. Many observers have noted that a good portion of Baghdad’s policies have been nakedly sectarian and discriminatory in nature. The government is now seen by some to be reaping the bitter harvest of Sunni disenchantment and frustration, fueled by a doctrinally hard-line Islamism.
The next few days will be pivotal in determining Iraq’s future. The country has to fight back against ISIS quickly and effectively. The military catastrophe in Nineveh might possibly contain an opportunity for political rapprochement—but only if Maliki can be convinced of the need to reach out across the sectarian divide. History shows that this might well be a faint hope.
Finally, late last night Maliki announced that the Iraqi security forces will retake control of Mosul city within 24 hours. However, with a collapse in the Iraqi Armed Forces’ morale, leadership and courage, coupled with the lack of a mature intelligence capability and a coherent counter-extremist strategy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how this can be achieved.