Why Iraqi army can’t fight, despite $25 billion in U.S. aid, training
Hussein Shehab knew things were going badly when he spotted the Iraqi police pickup trucks. They were flying the black flag of Islamic State fighters, who were driving the vehicles straight toward him and his fellow Iraqi security force soldiers.
It was June 9 in Mosul in northern Iraq. Shehab, a federal paramilitary police officer assigned to an army unit, realized that other officers had abandoned their vehicles and fled Islamic State fighters who were about to seize Iraq's second-largest city.
By the end of the day, Shehab's entire division had collapsed. Two army divisions also disintegrated as thousands of soldiers and police officers shed their uniforms, dropped their weapons and ran for their lives. Shehab, told that his commanders had deserted, tossed his rifle and ran away too.
"We felt like cowards, but our commanders were afraid of Daesh. They were too afraid to lead us," said Shehab, 43, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq's security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped, with soldiers suspicious of commanders and uncertain they would get enough food, water and ammunition in the heat of battle. Discipline is ragged, men disappear or go on leave at will, and commanders list "ghost soldiers" while collecting their paychecks, they said.
"This army is not prepared to fight. Nobody trusts anyone, not even from their own sect," said a 32-year-old federal police officer who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amar, for fear of retribution from his superiors
The military collapsed in Mosul even though Washington spent eight years and $25 billion to train, arm and equip Iraq's security forces. The United States has now deployed 1,400 advisors to try to rebuild the shattered mili- tary into a force that can repel Islamic State.
American commanders say the Iraqi army won't be ready to mount operations to retake Islamic State-controlled cities such as Mosul for many months. Meanwhile, Iraq's government has turned to Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Muslim tribesmen as it scrambles to keep the Sunni militants from advancing on Baghdad and its airport.
The U.S. military has not explained how a few more months of "advise and assist" will create a functional army after years of training was followed by wholesale desertions in Mosul and in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. Soldiers and police seeking to avoid mass executions if they were captured left behind weapons, ammunition, vehicles and other U.S.-supplied equipment now used by Islamic State to attack more government positions.
The U.S. military witnessed Iraqi army shortcomings as long ago as 2003. During the American-led invasion that year, thousands of Saddam Hussein's soldiers — including the supposedly elite Republican Guard — shed their uniforms, tossed aside their weapons and deserted. Among today's most battle-hardened Sunni militants are Hussein-era Baathist military survivors.
Asked how many Iraqi security forces are combat-ready today, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, said the command could not provide an estimate. He suggested asking the Iraqi army.
Questioned about the army's combat effectiveness, the commander of security forces in and around Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Abdul Ameer Kamil, said morale has improved as his units shift from defense to offense.
About half of Iraq's army is deployed in and around Baghdad, according to commanders. A third is in Anbar, where Islamic State controls most of the Sunni-dominated province.
Kamil blamed the Mosul collapse on betrayals by some commanders and frightened soldiers who fled after Islamic State fighters blared public announcements that "Daesh is coming!" Some soldiers joined the militants.
"This will never happen in Baghdad," Kamil said. "Our troops here have high spirits and they support each other. We have the initiative now.
Kamil said Iraqi forces were undermined in Mosul by Sunnis who resented the Shiite-dominated security forces and autocratic government in Baghdad and welcomed the Islamic State militants.
Security force members acknowledge that many Sunnis and other minorities see the Shiite-led army as a brutal occupying force. Under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, Sunnis were driven out of the security forces and replaced by Shiites.
"The army became Maliki's private militia," said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who was in charge of military training in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.