RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Looking at a map brings home the stunning turn of events in Iraq. An entire swath of that country's north is now in the hands of Islamist militants. Beyond the two big cities, Mosul and Tikrit, two more towns near the border with Iran have been seized. Witnesses say government troops simply ran away, dropping their weapons and stripping off their uniforms. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Iraq and spoke with soldiers and police who served in Mosul and gave up the fight.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Ali Yasser Ali lies frail in a hospital bed with wide, fearful eyes - his hand, pulling at my sleeve as he demands to tell his story. He says he's a police officer who worked alongside the Army, a father of six hit by shrapnel and paralyzed when Islamist militants rushed into the Iraqi city of Mosul. He says the people of Mosul refused to cooperate with the security forces.
YASSER ALI: (Through translator) We asked why they wouldn't agree to work with us. Why? They said we are not humans. We are monsters.
FORDHAM: Like most men deployed to the northern city of Mosul, he's a Shiite Muslim from the south of Iraq. People in Mosul are mostly Sunni.
ALI: (Through translator) It's sectarian. They don't want us to work for them.
FORDHAM: Seeing swaths of Iraq slip under control of Sunni militants over the last week has seemed startling and swift. But speak to security forces and you see they've been dissolution for some time. And they don't see the point of fighting the Al Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, because that group has the support of some of the local Sunni population.
BAHER IBRAHIM: (Through translator) No, we weren't surprised. We were expecting this 1 million percent.
FORDHAM: That's Baher Ibrahim, another police officer who sits by his wounded friend. Ibrahim says they lost the battle against ISIS in their area last Friday. Local tribal fighters join the extremists who have better weapons than the Army. The security forces were outnumbered, outgunned, and he says they were ordered to flee.
IBRAHIM: (Through translator) Planes didn't come. Aid didn't arrive. Support didn't come to us. Nothing came.
FORDHAM: Like many Iraqi troops, he received training from American soldiers back in 2009. He says it was excellent. But now morale among the forces is so low that about 10 of his friends deserted, even before this crisis. In another room in this hospital, about 50 miles north of Mosul, Farman Khalaf walks on crutches. He was a soldier in the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi army when he was wounded fighting Sunni militants in April. Thirteen of his brigade died in the attack. He says some of the local population were close to these Sunni armed groups, which are now aligned with ISIS and running Mosul. They would pass on threats.
FARMAN KHALAF: (Through translator) They would tell us daily, prepare yourselves. The terrorists are going to launch an attack on you.
FORDHAM: Khalaf says people in Mosul hate the armed forces because they are the army of the Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Maliki's Shiite, and the Sunni population of Mosul felt victimized by him and his forces. And Khalaf says they had good reason.
KHALAF: (Through translator) This is a failing system.
FORDHAM: Unlike most soldiers near Mosul, Khalaf is Sunni. He says he saw Shiite soldiers promoted ahead of him and Sunnis, including women, from the region detained without reason. I follow the limping soldier out to the street as he goes to buy cigarettes. As we walked, he tells me about the American training he had. He too says it was excellent.
KHALAF: (Through translator) They taught us how to respect civilians, how to appreciate people's humanities as it is your duty.
FORDHAM: So if the training is so good, I ask, why is the Army so ineffective? The soldier draws on his cigarette and tells me that, ultimately, Iraqi soldiers feel they have no value. He's seen his friends die, and he doesn't know what for. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Erbil, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.