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Q&A: "The mood in Baghdad was so sombre"

Is ISIL's takeover of Mosul a prelude to the disintegration of Iraq?

Last updated: 15 Jun 2014 13:15
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"ISIL never thought it can actually take full control over Mosul," says Ahmed Sami [Reuters]

Nearly a week since the seizure of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), many questions remain unanswered regarding the sudden collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, ISIL's real power and the possible outbreak of yet another episode of Sunni-Shia strife.

Ahmed Sami, an Iraqi researcher based in Baghdad, spoke to Al Jazeera about the situation on the ground.

Al Jazeera: What is the situation like in Baghdad?  Can we have a sense of how people are reacting to this?

Ahmed Sami: A couple of days ago the mood in Baghdad was so sombre, streets were empty, people are worried, hearing all the kind of rumours about ISIL getting closer and closer to the capital.

It is pretty clear now to see the militia in the streets of Baghdad, today [June 14] I saw a convoy of buses managed by men in uniforms and bearded, I thought they either dropped off volunteers or were going to pick them up from somewhere. The mood in the Sunni neighbourhood, however, is different from that in the Shia ones that are more alive with people, those Sunni neighbourhoods seem concerned and worried about what's coming next.

AJ: One of the most important questions had to do with the collapse of the Iraqi army. Has there been any official investigation into this incident as to how and why this happened?

AS: It is well known to many Iraqis that the military institution is plagued by corruption allegations. Soldiers became soldiers because there are no jobs. For many of them, serving in the army is just a salary, but money becomes useless when lives are at stake, that's why it was an easy decision to abandon posts and run away. But  that is of course not the only reason, many reports indicated that the Kurds were involved in this so they can gain full control over the disputed areas and  win Kirkuk, which they already did for the first time in history.

The Iraqi government did block the social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube hoping it can control the negative [rumours and facts] that would affect the soldiers, therefore, the last thing the government would do is to publicly investigate the reasons behind such collapse. This might cause a negative impact on the army as it struggles to regroup and recover.

The security forces in Mosul are made up of  federal police and military.

Soldiers became soldiers because there are no jobs. For many of them, serving in the army is just a salary, but money becomes useless when lives are at stake, that's why it was an easy decision to abandon posts and run away.

AJ: What do you make of ISIL's takeover of Mosul?

AS: It seems that ISIL never thought it can actually take full control over Mosul, best thing they hoped for was to cause confusion by controlling one neighbourhood or two.

 I believe ISIL itself was surprised how easy it was, with all that has been said, ISIL took the initiative and fought, while as it has been reported a few days later, Baathists got involved along with whatever groups they are allying with such as Naqshabanis [a group of former Baathists led by Izzat al-Dori, who served as vice president under Saddam Hussein].

At the very beginning of events, I was able to interview a man who lives in Mosul, he said those were ISIL. However, a couple of days later, when I phoned him again, he called them "armed men". When I asked about the change, he explained that because he was not really sure if this was only ISIL running the city.

The Iraqi forces in Mosul didn't do well regarding presenting a good image to the people. These were mostly Shia soldiers who never felt they belonged to the city nor felt Mosul was a city that belongs to Iraq. Those soldiers might stand their ground until they die if we were talking about the holy city of Karbalah for example.

So, I think the people [residents of Mosul] were eager for change, no matter who can carry out that change, therefore, they were happy when ISIL came in, no need to mention that ISIL managed well this time and were able to behave well with the people.  

Of course, we all know this is just so they can hold the ground with the support of the people. But as we know reports indicated that some tribes in Mosul decided to gather up and fight ISIL. This group is definitely in touch with the government for further coordination.

AJ: Is Iraq on the brink of a sectarian strife yet again?

AS: Yes, it is possible indeed, some Sunnis would think it is. This crisis appears to bring all the Shia together regardless of their disagreements. Even the Shia that are against [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki's policies decided to bury their differences and fight for Iraq's sake, or for the sake of the Shia doctrine. Secular groups supporting Maliki would fight in defence of  their lifestyle and the limited personal freedom they already enjoy.

The argument the Sunnis would be using to comment on [Ayatollah] Sistani's fatwa for jihad is that Najaf [the traditional seat of Iraq's Shia Islam] never issued jihad since the 1920 uprising against the British occupation. And it never issued jihad against the American forces when they were in Iraq in 2003-2010.

So some are going to try and frame this fatwa as if it targets the Sunnis. It was an interesting development, however, that some Sunni religious sheiks have also declared jihad against ISIL, such as Ahmed al-Kubaissi, and he is highly regarded by many Iraqi Shia.

AJ: How would you assess the Kurds' standing on this? Do they view it as a historic opportunity to seize Kirkuk?

AS: The Kurds took great advantage of what happened, Kirkuk is fully under their control now. Even if things were going to return to what they were before the ISIL takeover of Mosul, and if ISIL is forced out of all areas it occupies, the Iraqi army would need a decade to be able to return and hold the ground in the disputed areas including Kirkuk.

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Al Jazeera
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