How did hundreds of Islamist militants beat thousands of US-trained Iraqi army soldiers?

Damaged vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces seen during yesterday's clashes.
Damaged vehicles belonging to Iraqi security forces seen during yesterday's clashes. Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for parliament to declare a state of emergency in the country after Islamist militants, thought to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), took control of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul.

But the question here is just how did hundreds of militants armed with RPGs and rifles manage to occupy a city of two million people leading to the withdrawal of Iraqi army tanks and cause soldiers to discard their uniforms and weapons to flee the city?

A local journalist in Mosul has told ITV News the Islamist militants in question are being helped by other armed Sunni Islamist groups such as the Naqshbandi Army and Ansar al-Sunnah Army.

The Naqshbandi Army is made of Islamist fighters, many of whom are believed to be former Iraqi army officers from the era of late president Saddam Hussein.

Many people have fled the violence in the city of Mosul since yesterday's attack.
Many people have fled the violence in the city of Mosul since yesterday's attack. Credit: REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

The journalist we spoke to estimated the total number of fighters currently in Mosul to be between 2,000-3,000 fighters.

They are in control of Mosul International Airport and, according to militant websites, the Islamist militants in Mosul are now in possession of two fighter helicopters, large stockpiles of ammunition and armoured vehicles seized in past two days

The militants also control Mosul's main prison - Badush. They have already freed thousands of prisoners, among them people who have been accused of terrorism.

The group has also seized large amounts of cash from banks and financial institutions in the city.

They are said to be advancing south towards the town of Baiji, home to a large oil refinery. It is expected that if they are successful, they will also seize the refinery.

Footage purportedly shows large fires burning in the Iraqi oil refinery town of Baiji.
Footage purportedly shows large fires burning in the Iraqi oil refinery town of Baiji. Credit: RTV

For some locals these are not Islamist extremists who are taking control of their city - they see this as a sectarian fight between Sunnis and Shiites and that’s why many tribes in the Sunni Arab areas surrounding Mosul support the militants.

Sunnis in Iraq are feeling oppressed by what they see as al-Maliki's “Shiite” government.

Despite al-Maliki's win in the latest parliamentary elections in April, he has failed to gain the trust of Iraq's Sunni community.

The same Islamist militant group, ISIL, now controls large parts of eastern Syria and the border crossings with Iraq.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

So if we add the Iraqi Sunni city of Fallujah and the large parts of Ramadi already under the control of Islamist militants then we are talking about an area with over five million inhabitants under their control.

Last month, al-Maliki failed to regain Fallujah - a city smaller than Mosul located east of Baghdad - and it is still under the control of militants.

Time is running out for Iraq's army - the mission to regain Mosul will get tougher the longer the militants are allowed to stay and reorganise themselves inside the historic city.

The big question is, what happens if al-Maliki fails to regain lost ground?

This would be a catastrophic outcome that could give rise to a new area possibly a “Caliphate State” under ISIL's rule, to include Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.