The fall of Mosul: How Daesh managed to take Iraq's second largest city

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the internationally-recognised terror group Daesh or  Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the internationally-recognised terror group Daesh or  Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Lieutenant General Mahdi Gharawi, responsible for Mosul’s security, knew the attack was imminent. At the end of May 2014 the Iraqi security forces had arrested seven Daesh fighters in Mosul and discovered that the group was organising an offensive on the city.

The jihadist offensive

On June 6th 2014 at 02:30 am, Gharawi and his entourage were coming back to their headquarters after an inspection of military outposts within the city. Meanwhile, outside of Mosul, hundreds of pickups were advancing from the west through the desert across the border with Syria. Each vehicle was occupied by four, heavily armed jihadists.

From 3:30 am onwards, the militias were already fighting inside Mosul, triggering a two-day offensive which would cause the collapse of four Iraqi divisions and the capture or death of thousands of soldiers. Within three days, the Iraqi military would have abandoned the second country’s largest city to its attackers. This loss triggered a series of events that continues to reshape Iraq till this day - for better or for worse. The event has also contributed to the dismissal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pushed the Western states and Arab Gulf states to launch air strikes against the quasi-army of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.

However, as Mosul was lost and the order was given to leave the city, it is unclear up till this day who gave that decisive order. There is no official version: only stories of soldiers who deserted “en masse” and some infantry platoons who have contested the order to withdraw.

Who was to blame?

In June 2014, Prime Minister Maliki initially accused the regional powers and the rival leaders for was happened in Mosul. At the end, the Iraqi government blamed Staff Lieutenant General Mahdi Al-Gharawi, stating that no order to withdraw troops were issued from the capital Baghdad. In September 2014, he was dismissed and put on military trial.

A Reuters investigation, however, shows that both senior military officials and Prime Minister Maliki share the blame for the fall of Mosul. Many in Iraq agree that a shortage of troops, corruption and infighting among Iraqi political leaders played into the hands of Daesh forces. 

The role of Gharwari in the debacle is a matter of debate. According to the Provincial governor and many citizens, the blame lies with the sectarian politics of Prime Minister Malaki and Iraqi government which slowly alienated the Sunni majority in Mosul and helped to create jihadist’s sleeper cells inside the city. Gharawi says he did not give the final order to leave the city. Others involved in the battle endorse this statement and says that Gharawi resisted the impulse to withdraw until the city has been invaded. It was only then that he and his men fled.

Gharawi argues that three people gave the final orders: Aboud Qanbar, then Deputy Head of Staff of the Ministry of Defense; Ali Ghaidan, then commander of the ground forces; and Prime Minister Maliki himself, who personally directed his senior officers from Baghdad. The secret of who decided to leave Mosul, Gharawi says, lies with these three men. Gharawi also says that the decision by Ghaidan and Qanbar to leave the western part of Mosul triggered mass desertions when soldiers realised their commanders had fled.

Neither of the three men have publicly commented on their decisions about Mosul. Maliki refused any requests for an interview on this subject, Qanbar did not answer while Ghaidan could not be reached. Lieutenant General Qassim Atta, a military spokesman with close ties to Maliki, told Reuters that Gharawi “above all others has failed in his role as commander”. The rest, he said, “will be revealed by the judiciary.”

In many ways, the story of Mahdi Al-Gharawi is a window into contemporary Iraqi politics. The General, belonging to the Shia community, has been a key figure since 2003 when the Shiites began to gain power after the United States removed Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baath party from office.

Shia leaders greeted Gharawi as a hero, while Sunnis see him as a killer who used the war in Iraq as a cover to extort money from innocent people. Mahdi al-Gharawi has increased his power through the Iraqi army, a military divided by sectarian divisions, corruption, and political affiliations. It remains trapped by those same forces.

The decision to punish him and ignore the role of more senior figures shows not only that the reconstruction of the Iraqi Army will be difficult, but also that the country is under constant risk of rupturing and disintegrating. As demonstrated in Mosul, the Iraqi army is a failed institution in the heart of a collapsed state. According to Gharawi, he became a scapegoat and a victim of deal-making and alliances that favour Iraq’s political and military elite. Ghaidan and Qanbar, Maliki’s long-standing confidants, were only sent home.

Gharawi, who lives in his hometown of southern Iraq, says his masters put the blame for a rotten system on him. “They just want to save themselves from these accusations,” he told Reuters during an interview in Baghdad. “The investigation should include the highest commanders and the leadership. Everyone should say what they know”.

Mosul is Lost

When the jihadists advanced towards Mosul on 6th June 2014, their aim was just to take a neighborhood for a couple of hours. They did not expected that all the government apparatus in the city would collapsed like a house of cards. Hundreds of them dug in that night swelling to over 2,000 fighters in the coming days as they were welcomed by many angry Sunni citizens of the city.

The first line of defence of Mosul was the Sixth Brigade of the Third Division of the Iraqi Army. Officially, the brigade had 2,500 men but according to an internal investigation, they were only 500 soldiers on active duty.The brigade was also short of weapons and ammunition. Infantry, amor and tanks had been moved to Anbar where more than 6,000 soldiers had already been killed and another 12,000 had deserted.

In the district of Musherfa, one of city’s most important military bases, there were only 40 soldiers serving on the night of June 6th. According to Gharawi’s, he ordered his forces to form a defensive line to isolate the West’s neighborhoods of Mosul besieged by the Tigris River. Gharawi also said he had received a call from Maliki to hold positions until the arrival of Qanbar, the deputy head of the defence ministry cabinet, and Ghaidan, who commanded the Iraqi ground forces. Qambar is a member of the tribe of Maliki, while Ghaidan had long assisted Maliki in security operations.

Now the fate of the city depended on Gharawi. In the afternoon June 8th, Daesh converged towards the city. More than 100 vehicles - with at least 400 men from Syria - headed towards Mosul in addition to the fighters already in the city. Sleeper cells hiding amongst the population had been activated and gathered around. The insurgents bombed a police station in the Al-Uraybi neighborhood and around the Mosul Hotel. Gharawi and his federal police fought back hammering the areas controlled by Daesh with artillery fire. In few hours, however, Gharawi’s command fell into chaos.

Military sources report how Ghaidan and Qanbar deposed a division commander who had refused to send his soldiers to defend the Mosul hotel. General Zebari considers the order another serious mistake: “During a battle, it is not possible to replace the commander.” By June 9th, the fourth battalion of Colonel Obeidi and forty of his men were engaged in the last fight to restrain the jihadists in western Mosul. The rest had escaped or joined the jihadists.


Ahmed al-Zarkani, the head of the intelligence office in Mosul had repeatedly warned the Iraqi government in Baghdad that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group was planning something. Since February 2014, he forwarded a request to the central authority for targeted bombings against Daesh's training camps outside the city. Appeals were repeatedly ignored, as well as those made by key political personalities.

At the beginning of 2014, Nouri al Maliki was the Prime Minister of Iraq and responsible for two key departments as the Ministry of Defense and Internal Affairs, the latter of which was responsible for the management of intelligence. The recent parliamentary committee, therefore, said that the person responsible for the fall of Mosul  predominantly must lie with former Prime Minister Maliki and to a lesser extent the governor of Mosul, Athil al-Nujaifi, who has since been sacked. But why was precious intelligence and information sent to Baghdad ignored instead of being used to prevent a probable attack? “The commission of inquiry has listed six indictments against me” – Nujaifi stated recently during an interview with The Independent – “but only two refer directly to the fall of Mosul”

According to Nujaifi, the Commission accused him because he had not informed the Prime Minister that the city would fall shortly thereafter. “But at the same time, Maliki’s chief of staff stated in his testimony that I was the only one to call to explain the situation by asking more weapons. Maliki simply replied that it was not the governor’s job” Mr. Nujaifi says. Nujaifi, from the Sunni political spectrum, indicates in the confessional tensions between Shia and Sunni Iraqis the cause of the almost total absence of communication between his office and Baghdad. According to the former governor of Mosul, Nouri al-Maliki himself would have ordered his subordinates not to share information with him.

The reason for Nujaifi was clear: Nouri al-Maliki’s reluctance to help the Sunni politicians potentially close to the Baath party: “Maliki thought I had ties with the Baath party and that, if he had given his support, the Saddam’s political party would once again have a strong presence in the city “.

The former governor believes that Maliki and his followers were so frightened that the Baath would once again control the population: “They knew that if there had been a Sunni political power in Mosul no one would help them. With Daesh, the whole international community supported them. For Maliki, any acceptable Sunni power for the international community was more dangerous than Daesh.”

Nino Orto