Fear, sectarian divisions, low morale lie behind collapse of Iraqi forces in face of militants

The Associated Press

Iraqi army armored vehicle is seen burned on a street of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014. The al-Qaida-inspired group that captured two key Sunni-dominated cities in Iraq this week vowed on Thursday to march on to Baghdad, raising fears about the Shiite-led government's ability to slow the assault following the insurgents' lightning gains. Fighters from ISIL on Wednesday took Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces. (AP Photo)

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By HAMZA HENDAWI and BASSEM MROUE, Associated press

CAIRO (AP) — The video, set to sweetly lilting religious hymns, is chilling. Islamic militants are shown knocking on the door of a Sunni police major in the dead of night in an Iraqi city. When he answers, they blindfold and cuff him. Then they carve off his head with a knife in his own bedroom.

The 61-minute video was recently posted online by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida splinter group of Sunni extremists. The intent was to terrorize Sunnis in Iraq's army and police forces and deepen their already low morale.

That fear is one factor behind the stunning collapse of Iraqi security forces when fighters led by the Islamic State overran the cities of Mosul and Tikrit this week, sweeping over a swath of Sunni-majority territory. In most cases, police and soldiers simply ran, sometimes shedding their uniforms, and abandoned arsenals of heavy weapons.

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 remain riven by sectarian discontents, corruption and a lack of professionalism.

Many Sunnis in the armed forces are unprepared to die fighting on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government, which many in their minority community accuse of sharp bias against them. The Islamic State has exploited this by touting itself as the Sunnis' champion against Shiites.

Shiites in the armed forces, in turn, feel isolated and deeply vulnerable trying to hold on to Sunni-majority areas.

Desertion has been heavy the past six months among forces in the western province of Anbar, Iraq's Sunni heartland, where troops have been fighting in vain to uproot Islamic State fighters who took over the city of Fallujah, said two high officials — one in the government and the other in the intelligence services.

The militants who early this week swept into the northern city of Mosul included former Sunni army officers who had deserted out of frustration with al-Maliki's government, the two officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports.

As the militants approached, the two officials said, many of the top army commanders in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, fled to the autonomous Kurdish region.

With their generals gone, the ranks saw no reason to stay.

"We were fighting, but our leaders betrayed us," one soldier who escaped from Mosul told the AP in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region. "When we woke up, all the leaders had left."

The intelligence assessments show that many of the 52,000 police and 12,000 soldiers in Mosul surrendered, handing over their weapons in exchange for safe passage out, the two officials said.

With a salary of $700 a month for newly enlisted men, the army and the police have attracted many young Iraqis who would otherwise be unemployed. Once in, some bribe commanders so they can stay home and take a second job, lamented the officials.

Most are in it for the paycheck. "There's a sense the individuals looked to themselves and thought this is not my fight," said Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. "They haven't been trained and imbued with a sense of professionalism."

"Even in the army, the loyalties are not to the state," said Istrabadi, now director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University.

Many troops are drawn from the ranks of Shiite militiamen and from Sunni tribal militias, known as the Sahwa, set up by the Americans to fight al-Qaida. The loyalties of those troops are often more to their sect or tribe than to the state. In Baghdad, army checkpoints manned by Shiite troops often fly Shiite banners or images of Shiite religious figures.