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Iraq's Mosul: Battle of psychological war

By Hala Abdulla | | July 1, 2014

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The quick and shocking fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest and predominantly Sunni city, to the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, should not come as a surprise to those monitoring the news out of the troubled region, especially Syria and Iraq. There are several indicators that suggested such fall was only a matter of time. ISIS has maintained a strong footprint in Iraq’s western province of Anbar, particularly Falluja capitalizing on the Sunni-Arab frustration against the Shiite-majority government headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Following April elections in which Al-Maliki garnered majority of the votes, and his looming third term, ISIS began escalating plans to expand beyond Falluja to create a momentum. Days before the fall of Mosul, ISIS attempted to besiege Samara, home of the two Shiite shrines that were bombed and was the tipping point of a bloody sectarian war in 2006 and beyond. This and more indicates that ISIS was moving forward with its ambitions, as reflected in its name, to establish an Islamic Khilafa in Iraq and Syria.

However, the devastating retreat of the Iraqi army in Mosul on June 10 in the face of a couple thousands of ISIS fighters certainly needs a critical reexamination. Why did the Iraqi army collapse in Mosul? According to sources, there were two army divisions of roughly 30,000 soldiers, in addition to thousands of federal and local police. The narrative coming out of Iraq suggests that leadership in Mosul deserted their posts first, leaving behind their soldiers stumbling between an approaching vicious ISIS, hostile and unwelcoming locals in Mosul, along with rumors of orders to withdraw created confusion and lowered morale among the soldiers.

There are many factors contributed to this debacle. Military experts have identified some over the course of the Iraq war, but recent events have shed light on different and new factors. Corruption, nepotism, a lack of sufficient operational planning, and questionable loyalties are some known factors. Additionally, the army’s leadership, structure, and foundation reflect the fragmented political environment built on a sectarian basis. The army lacks a unified national identity and cohesion. This led many professional and competent officers to leave the army. Moreover, the majority of lower rank soldiers consider the army as a mere employment opportunity to put food on the table.

One could argue that the former Iraqi army was perceived as one of the most experienced and professional armies in the region. However, examining that recent history, there are similar characteristics and events that led to the formation of the Iraqi army today. Corruption and nepotism existed in the former army, including as well as the targeting of respectful military leaders by Saddam. The killing of his own cousin and borther-in-law Adnan Khairallah, Saddam’s Defense Minister, a very popular personality among the officer corps was one example.

The major difference that separates the former army from the current one is the element of fear. Saddam had ruled the former army by fear. It is said that there was a unit dubbed “the execution battalion” in the rear of the battlefield awaiting deserters. Senior officers who failed against the Iranians were summarily executed. Moreover, the former army was drafted where everyone had to serve including college graduates who enjoyed an increased level of education, professionalism and personal responsibility compared with the current army ranks. Draft military service has been inactive since 2003.

Like the former army, the current army is suffering from exhaustion. Saddam had dragged the army back then into three wars and by the time the U.S. forces approached Baghdad in 2003, there was little resistance. A similar scenario was re-enacted in Mosul. This army has been fighting Al-Qaida in Iraq AQI, rebranded as ISIS, for almost ten years now, it is a weary army.

Interviews of soldiers fleeing Mosul, accounts of eyewitnesses that circulated in the social media, and talking to people from inside Iraq, suggest that ISIS managed to overcome thousands of Iraqi security forces stationed inside and on the outskirt of Mosul by launching a carefully orchestrated strategic psychological war never before seen by Iraqis, whether army or civilians. While Saddam had always kept a tight control on the media and flow of information which restricted Iraqis to one government-owned channel, social media platforms, countless satellite channels and the accessibility of smartphones enabled an information flow and reinforced spreading ISIS’s propaganda, which claims “great victories” and the gruesome execution of its “enemies.” As an example of the wide use of smartphones among soldiers, some local sources said Iraqi soldiers often received their orders via text messages not the usual classified means of communication. ISIS capitalized on this and released multiple videos of beheadings, military parades, and boatful predictions and rumors of captured and executed Iraqi army leaders. This contributed to the collapsing morale of both army and civilians as well, pushed the Iraqi government, belatedly, to block all social media outlets in an attempt to hinder ISIS’s psychological war propaganda.

Though ISIS is no more than a couple of thousands teamed up with local insurgents, Ba’athists and members of former Iraqi army and intelligence, their propaganda were far reaching. Iraqis are just now realizing the breadth and impact of a well carried out psychological war that has in turn cost hundreds of lives.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Center for Operational Culture Learning or the United States Marine Corps. This piece was created at the CAOCL. The center is located on Marine Corps Base Quantico and provides regional, culture and language training programs for Marines of all ranks. For information about CAOCL, visit https://www.tecom.usmc.mil/caocl/SitePages/Home.aspx.


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