Ain Al-Tamr (Iraq), July 2: The forlorn scenes in the ancient Al-Ukhaidir fortress tell of a government force in deep disarray. Flies circle beneath its high ceilings, above dozens of demoralised men who pass the day sleeping on dusty stone floors.
Until late June, this eighth-century redoubt in the Shia south of Iraq had been a tourist and heritage site. Now the remnants of the Ninth Brigade find shelter within its walls. These men have no pressing duties, even at a time of Iraq’s grave need. Instead, more than 300 miles from posts they had been ordered to defend, they huddled around visitors to describe an embarrassing retreat.
“We were sold, it was a sellout,” said one of the enlisted men, as a crowd of his fellow guards nodded in agreement. “Everyone here was willing to fight.”
The account of the Ninth Brigade of Iraq’s border guards, confirmed by an official who witnessed many of the events, is a portrait of generals unfit to lead in war and of mismanagement, incompetence and ultimately treachery under the patronage of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
In early June, as militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, stormed through the north, Iraq’s security forces crumbled. Some soldiers and police officers shed their uniforms and bolted. Others were captured or changed sides. But what was sometimes labelled cowardice or treason in the rank and file was often nothing of the sort, members of the border forces said in interviews in recent days. In the case of the Ninth Brigade, at least, its members insisted that they were eager to fight but were undermined by high commanders who failed to provide border forces with water and food, causing the brigade to abandon positions in the searing desert heat.
Two critical border crossings, Qaim and Waleed, slipped from government control last month, and large stretches of open desert along the Syrian border have not been patrolled since the Ninth Brigade withdrew over a week ago, border guards said. The collapse gave ISIS unchallenged cross-border movement.
The Iraq government claims that Waleed is back in government hands. Border guards say more troops will be sent across the desert to reinforce the border soon. But the bitter experiences of the Ninth Brigade, as told by its members, showed the force to be so undercut by cronyism that it was able to fight for less than two weeks before it descended into a venomous internal dispute.
Members of border-guard units said the breakdown was especially galling because after years of western training and funding, and the commitment of the enlisted men who staked their lives on Iraq’s young government, it was senior officers who failed.