Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are deserting the army, creating a crisis for the Baghdad government as al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militants take control of vital regions in the war-torn country.
The staggering number of desertions are a major blow to U.S. government officials who had forked out $14 billion on Iraqi security forces to help them prepare for a battle against the Sunni extremists, according to The New York Times.
The problem came to a head in Mosul this week when fleeing troops allowed fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to take over Iraq’s second-largest city with little opposition.
The deserters dumped their weapons, their vehicles, and their uniforms as militants captured five army bases, as well as the city’s airport.
As the fighters paraded around in captured Humvees, the Iraqi government was reduced to bombing its own bases to prevent more weapons ending up in enemy hands.
Before Mosul collapsed, hundreds of soldiers were deserting every day, while many more were killed or injured, a security analyst who works with the Iraqi government told the Times.
Hordes of soldiers are laying down their arms as the Sunni militants continue to capture huge swaths of territory in the north and west of the country.
One soldier named Mohamed, who would only give his first name because deserters face a possible death sentence, told the newspaper that eight of his comrades had been killed recently when a mortar shell struck their Humvee.
"I felt like I was fighting armies, not an army," said Mohamed, 24. "I’m tired," he said, referring to the U.S. invasion and the years of sectarian strife between the Sunnis and Shiites. "Everyone is tired."
The Iraqi government has attempted to play down the crisis by saying soldiers are "missing" and not deserters, while other officials have claimed that soldiers had not returned from leave because the roads leading to the battlefields were dangerous, the Times said.
The desertions have resulted in Baghdad ordering more artillery attacks and airstrikes while attempting to recapture lost territory, including Fallujah, which was taken over by the militants six months ago.
However, the measure have led human rights workers to say that Iraq is using widespread "barrel bombs" that put civilians at risk.
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