BAGHDAD (AP) — The Islamic State group gave only three options for the soldiers and police officers guarding Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, when they neared it a year ago: Repent, run or die.
Many ran. Those who resisted died, often gruesomely in mass killings filmed and uploaded to the Internet, only fueling fear of the extremists.
The collapse of Iraqi security forces, which received billions of dollars in aid and training from the U.S. during its occupation, haunts this divided country today, a year after the Islamic State group seized Mosul and a third of the country. Its sectarian divides grow deeper as millions remain displaced, military gains have seen militant counterattacks and a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes appears not to have changed the stalemate.
What can change the situation is unclear, as lower oil prices sap the Iraqi economy, the U.S. limits its involvement on the ground and the Iraqi people as a whole continue to suffer.
“There’s no salary, no job, no life,” said a 31-year-old former soldier named after the country’s former dictator Saddam Hussein, who saw his young son killed as his family fled Mosul for Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region. “And if you have a child and he gets sick, you can’t treat him.”
On June 10, 2014, the Islamic State group took full control of Mosul, part of its lightning sweep from its territory in war-ravaged Syria and Iraq’s Anbar province. Videos quickly emerged of the extremists waving their trademark black flags in parades down Mosul’s streets or driving Iraqi forces’ U.S.-made Humvees, as darker films of their massing killings followed.
Weeks later, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi purportedly spoke at Mosul’s main mosque and the group declared a “caliphate” over territory it controlled, demanding the loyalty of the world’s Muslims. A U.S.-led air campaign began in August targeting the group, the number of strikes now numbering around 1,900.
While Shiite militias advised by Iran and Iraqi forces have recaptured Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, the battle on the ground appears at the least locked in stalemate — or at the worst, not in Iraq’s favor. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who stepped down in August amid calls for his resignation, is widely blamed for the corruption and incompetence in Iraq’s armed forces after he replaced top Sunni commanders with his own loyalists. The Islamic State group’s advance merely exposed the rot, as entire units collapsed and soldiers stripped off their uniforms as they fled, leaving behind large caches of U.S.-supplied weapons.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to empower Sunni tribesmen through the formation of a national guard, which would oversee security in the Sunni heartland — areas predominantly under Islamic State control today. But the force has failed to get off the ground and many remain suspicious of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains hesitant to become too involved in the war after U.S. President Barack Obama withdrew all American ground forces at the end of 2011. There now are slightly fewer than 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq training and advising local forces, but they are not fighting on the front line. The White House said Wednesday the U.S. will send up to 450 more troops to Iraq to boost the training of local forces.
“We have made significant progress in pushing back ISIL … but we’ve also seen areas like in Ramadi where they’re displaced in one place and then they come back in in another,” Obama said Monday, referring to the Islamic State group by an alternate acronym. “And they’re nimble, and they’re aggressive, and they’re opportunistic.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press that any real solution in Iraq will require greater involvement from neighboring countries.
“Without the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, working together, it will be difficult — if not impossible — to achieve any realistic solutions,” Khalilzad said.
Economically, Iraq also finds itself unable to pay for the war it needs to fight. Plummeting oil prices — down 43 percent from a year ago — have dealt a major shock to Iraq, which relies on oil for 90 percent of its revenues. Unemployment stands at 25 percent.
At least 40 percent of the country’s workforce — about 5 million people — is employed by the government, which is struggling to pay salaries. That includes civil servants in Islamic State-held areas, who still receive salaries which are then taxed by the militants, according to residents in Mosul and Fallujah who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
“We have no choice,” Ahmad Chalabi, a former deputy prime minister and chairman of parliament’s finance committee, told the AP in February. “What will this say about the loyalty of the Iraqi government if we stop paying our citizens, regardless of where they live?”
Pressure is mounting on the Iraqi government to stabilize the country and preventing further discontent, particularly among Sunnis living in militant-held areas and Kurds living in semi-autonomous northern Iraq. Some fear the country could be split into three parts otherwise, including a Shiite-dominated south.
Meanwhile, nearly 3 million Iraqis like Hussein now live in refugee camps or squat in unofficial shelters. According to the United Nations, 8.2 million Iraqis — about a quarter of the country’s population — will need humanitarian assistance this year.
And as the war grinds on, authorities acknowledge many refugees may never return — with towns destroyed in the fighting and infrastructure severely damaged.
“We will be lucky if we get half of them back to their original homes,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s former national security adviser.
All the while, anger simmers.
“We thought it wouldn’t take longer than one week or one month,” said Ayad Mohammed, 35, who fled Mosul last year. “But the military leaders with their big salaries and bank accounts abroad and their nice cars and who took their families outside, they never cared about us. And the politicians we voted for, I wish I chopped of my finger and not voted for them because they are responsible for me and my children being here, along with all these people.”
Associated Press writers Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq and Nedra Pickler and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
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