"We asked them why they were leaving … They all said they had orders from their superiors."
Last week on Wednesday, a day after Islamist fighters surged south towards Baghdad, an Iraqi officer in the town of Jalula heard tyres crunch on the gravel near his window and stepped outside to investigate.
A convoy of Kurdish military vehicles disgorged dozens of troops, known as peshmerga, who told him they had come to take over his base, 130km northeast of the Iraqi capital, and its weapons. The Kurds were a long way from home, having driven 330km south from Irbil, deep into a region that for decades has been fiercely contested by the Kurdish north and the rest of Arab Iraq.
The officer checked the Kurds’ request with his superiors, who told him to comply. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The division commanders told us to leave.”
Similar scenes were repeated at bases and outposts in the disputed areas of the north and in the K1 base west of Kirkuk, which was also in the midst of a historic changing of the guard. The extraordinary events were the final curtain for Iraq’s army – a force that has spent billions on equipment and training and was touted as the best-trained and armed military force in the Arab world.
In just three days, the army had simply folded as first the jihadist insurgents and then the Kurds rode into town. Its soldiers returned to their homes and its weapons were carted away, either by the peshmerga or the jihadists, depending on who got there first.
The army’s collapse signalled a sudden and dramatic shift in the balance of power between Kurds, Sunnis and Shia. The significance of that shift has been obscured by a week of bloodshed and uncertainty. But, as the jihadi advance has slowed, questions are being asked in Baghdad about how a region so central to the bitter feud between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs was so easily surrendered.
One theory, given widespread credence, is that the three Iraqi generals responsible for Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk simply didn’t want to fight for a state that wasn’t working. Another is that the Iraqi troops quickly realised they were no match for battle-hardened and ideologically motivated jihadis heading their way.
A third theory is that giving the Kurds the crown jewel of Kirkuk, capital of a region with huge oil reserves, would be the first step in a set of carefully choreographed moves to reframe relations between Baghdad and the Kurds and drag the dysfunctional country out of a state of permanent chaos. Central to this theory is the reality that the Kurds had long ago lost faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ability to serve either their interests or those of Iraq.
Few of Iraq’s Shia majority had much enthusiasm for the embattled leader, whose coalition won more seats than any other group in general elections seven weeks ago but nowhere near enough to secure a mandate. The result was sure to be many months of political stagnation.
Iran, weighed down in Syria and also disenchanted with Maliki, would not have cherished the prospect of its regional interests being threatened further by more political drift in Baghdad.
Maliki seems to have next to no chance of forming a government. Diplomatic sources have told the Guardian in recent days that Washington has also lost faith in its former ally. Iran is yet to declare its hand but has told Iraqi politicians that it has a list of four acceptable candidates to form a government: Maliki; the former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a senior political figure; or the former US ally and deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi.
Of the four, Chalabi has the support of many Kurdish leaders and has strong links to Iran. His links to Washington were severed more than a decade ago after he helped to persuade the Pentagon to invade Iraq. His return to political centre stage would be a remarkable twist in the contentious history of the former favourite of former United States president George W Bush.
“Maliki had no idea this was going to happen,” said an Iraqi politician. “He was blindsided. But others weren’t.”
Officers with Kurdish and Iraqi units say they are still trying to fathom what took place in the north – why the army was told to stand down, and who ultimately called the shots.
A Kurdish secret police officer in Kirkuk said Iraqi officers started to flee the day before the city fell. By then, Islamic insurgents had taken Tikrit and Mosul and were on the move east.
“We saw many Iraqi officers from Kirkuk, mainly Arabs, leaving the K1 base,” he said. “We asked them why they were leaving when they were on alert. They all said they had orders from their superiors.”
Shakhawan, a peshmerga fighter, said: “The night before [June 10] two Iraqi army outposts abandoned their positions in Kirkuk and we immediately moved in. A few days ago, my cousin, who is also in the peshmerga, saw an Iraqi army officer who came back to K1 because he had left some official documents.
“The officer was so overwhelmed when he saw the state of the base that he started crying. He said they had orders from their superiors to abandon the base.”
Three other Iraqi soldiers told similar stories. All had asked for answers from their superiors but said they were starting to believe that the questions would be better answered by politicians in Baghdad, the Kurdish north or Tehran.
“This will all be sorted out sooner than most people think,” a senior Iraqi official said. “And clarity will emerge from the mist of last week.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014