‘Combat-ineffective’ Iraqi forces struggle to repel Isis

A ‘checkpoint army’ is a puny match for determined insurgent fighters

Shia volunteers, who have signed up to aid the Iraqi army in the fight against advancing Sunni militants in Isis, get training in Najaf. Photograph: Alaa Al-Marjan/Reuters

Shia volunteers, who have signed up to aid the Iraqi army in the fight against advancing Sunni militants in Isis, get training in Najaf. Photograph: Alaa Al-Marjan/Reuters

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

As Iraqi army forces try to rally on the outskirts of Baghdad after two weeks of retreat, it has become increasingly clear to western officials that the army will continue to suffer losses in its fight with Sunni militants and will not soon retake the ground it has ceded.

Recent assessments by western officials and military experts indicate that about a quarter of Iraq’s military forces are “combat-ineffective”, its air force is minuscule, morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.

As other nations consider whether to support military action in Iraq, their decision will hinge on the quality of Iraqi forces, which have proved far more ragged than expected given years of US training. Even now, fighters with the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, are methodically consolidating their gains, extending their hold on Euphrates river valley towns, securing access routes between their bases in Syria and the front lines in Iraq, and pressuring other Sunni groups to fight with them.

At the same time, efforts to persuade the Iraqi government to be more inclusive to Sunnis and provide a counterweight to the intimidation and coercive approach of the militants are making little headway. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has turned to tens of thousands of Shia militiamen and volunteers that Sunnis see as a threat, and so far has not reached out in any meaningful way to Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Taken together, the picture that emerges is of an Iraq where the lines on the map mean little. The north and west have become a haven for Sunni extremists who have largely succeeded in erasing the border between their territory in Syria and Iraq. On Saturday, the militants took Qaim, a checkpoint on the border with Syria, giving them the ability to move large quantities of weapons and men into Iraq.

With a newly expanded Kurdistan in the north, Baghdad and the south remain under government control. “Now we are just in the position of protecting what we have left of our territory,” said an Iraqi army commander in Diyala, where fighters for Isis and other Sunni groups are fighting. “Our army soldiers are really down,” said the commander, who asked not to be identified as he was not authorised to speak with reporters.

Second city’s fall

Despite the speed of the militants’ advance so far, most US officials do not see Baghdad falling. But many of their other worst-case scenarios have come to pass, including the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and the militants’ capture of several border crossings with Syria.

“The momentum is with Isis,” said one western official. “They grow and grow every day.”

In the face of that, some experts have declared the Iraqi army a defeated force, posing a dire counterpoint to the hopes and assessments of American trainers when the US withdrew in 2011. Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote recently that 60 out of 243 Iraqi army combat battalions “cannot be accounted for, and all of their equipment is lost”.

Shattered army

US officials said their assessment was that five of the Iraqi army’s 14 divisions were “combat-ineffective”, including the two that were overrun in Mosul. Remnants of shattered units and soldiers who were on leave when the Isis offensive began have been sent to the military base at Taji, north of Baghdad, to be cobbled together into fresh units. But that, officials and experts underscored, is a process that is going to take time.

“It will be a mammoth task to put these units back together and rearm them,” Mr Knights said. “Just as important, the defeated army needs to be turned around.”

Many of the US military advisers who are heading to Baghdad will be doing a detailed assessment of the army’s needs, US officials say. But a measure of the military’s desperation is that its chief assistance now comes from hundreds of thousands of volunteers and a smaller number of highly trained militia members. For army units – and there are a number of them – that are fighting hard, often under difficult circumstances, adding volunteers who have little or no experience has been of questionable benefit. Hundreds of volunteers have been killed or wounded in ambushes on their way to the battlefield, for example. That is not true of the trained militias, which have far fewer fighters but are experienced and highly trained, mostly by the Iranians, and who augment the regular army’s morale, said commanders.

Strengthening Iraq’s air assets would also seem to be a necessity. Earlier this year, the military had just three Cessna aircraft able to deliver US-made Hellfire missiles, but recently the army was down to two aircraft and was running out of missiles, officials said.

One bright spot, officials say, is Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force, which the US has been quietly training at the Baghdad airport. Yet since the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, the skills of Iraqi forces have atrophied, American officials said. The Iraqi military is not practised at manoeuvring on the battlefield and has become a “checkpoint army”, adept at checking identification but not at taking the fight to its enemy, western officials said.

From the point of view of Iraqi army officers, they are in a desperate situation: ill-equipped against an enemy they say they were not trained to fight. “We don’t have enough intelligence information, we don’t have good air coverage, we are battling very well-trained groups that have good experience in street fights, that are moving fast between cities and villages,” said one commander in Salahuddin.

“Our new volunteers are in big numbers, but they are all untrained, while Isis are in small numbers, but they are well-trained,” he said. “We must bring in real fighters – Isis fighters have a will to die so they don’t show fear.”

Western officials describeIsis as a far tougher enemy than the one the US military faced when it was battling al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2004 to 2009. There is a consensus that despite their small numbers they are well-equipped, trained and financed. They also appear dedicated to their cause of vanquishing the forces of the modern world and returning the territory they take to an earlier form of Islam.

Arsenal captured

With an estimated 10,000 fighters, Isis has been able to seize stores of military equipment and plan small offensive missions that, when coupled with a propaganda campaign, have proved highly effective. When the militants overran Mosul they captured the second-largest ammunition storage site in Iraq, which one expert described as a “Wal-Mart of ammunition”.

The militants also captured 52 artillery pieces, including Howitzers, which were abandoned by Iraqi troops as they fled south. It is unclear if Isis can figure out how to use them, but if it did so that would add to its already substantial firepower.

So far, the fighters seem impervious to combat losses, quickly replenishing their ranks with fighters from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Chechnya and Europe, who appear to be drawn by the successes in Iraq. They have also found recruits by freeing prisoners in prison breaks, like one last July, in which 800 prisoners were helped to escape from Abu Ghraib.

During the recent assault on Mosul, Isis released some 2,500 inmates from Badoosh prison. A number of them were Sunni insurgent operatives and some almost certainly rejoined the fight, although it is impossible to know how many did so.

Sectarian hatred

Significant also are fears about growing sectarianism. The Samarra shrine, worshiped by Shia and whose bombing in February 2006 set off a vicious cycle of bloodletting, is again under siege. It is well-guarded by Shia militiamen, but the insurgents have lobbed mortars at it recently.

“For now, we are just trying to protect those Shia areas,” the commander in Diyala said. “And then we will figure out how to deal with them in the areas they have taken.” – (New York Times service)