Is­lamic State is a large, well-trained force; it’ll be hard to beat

The mil­i­tant group is now be­lieved to have 200 000 fight­ers – many of them re­cruits from the con­sid­er­able ter­ri­tory it has seized – and it has learnt to use the US ar­tillery it has cap­tured

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE - PA­TRICK COCK­BURN Irbil, Iraq

IS­LAMIC State has re­cruited an army hun­dreds of thou­sands strong and far larger than pre­vi­ous es­ti­mates by the CIA. And its abil­ity to at­tack on many widely sep­a­rated fronts in Iraq and Syria at the same time shows the num­ber of mil­i­tant fight­ers is at least 200 000, seven or eight times big­ger than for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency es­ti­mates of up to 31 500 men.

Fuad Hus­sein, the chief of staff of the Kur­dish Pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani, said in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day: “I am talk­ing about hun­dreds of thou­sands of fight­ers be­cause they are able to mo­bilise young Arab men in the ter­ri­tory they have taken.”

He es­ti­mates that Is­lamic State rules a third of Iraq and a third of Syria with a pop­u­la­tion of be­tween 10 and 12 mil­lion liv­ing in an area of 250 000km , the same size as Great Bri­tain. This gives the ji­hadis a large pool of po­ten­tial re­cruits.

Proof that Is­lamic State has cre­ated a large field army at great speed is that it has been launch­ing at­tacks against the Kurds in north­ern Iraq and the Iraqi army close to Bagh­dad at the same time as it is fight­ing in Syria. The high fig­ure for its com­bat strength is im­por­tant be­cause it un­der­lines how dif­fi­cult it will be to elim­i­nate it even with US air strikes.

In Septem­ber, the CIA pro­duced an es­ti­mate of Is­lamic State num­bers which cal­cu­lated the move­ment had be­tween 20 000 and 31 500 fight­ers. The un­der­es­ti­mate of the size of the force Is­lamic State can de­ploy may ex­plain why the US and other for­eign gov­ern­ments have been re­peat­edly caught by sur­prise over the past five months as it in­flicted suc­ces­sive de­feats on the Iraqi army, Syr­ian army, Syr­ian rebels and Kur­dish pesh­merga.

The US and its al­lies are be­gin­ning to take on board the ob­sta­cles to ful­fill­ing US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s pledge to de­grade and de­stroy Is­lamic State. Gen­eral Martin Dempsey, the chair­man of the Amer­i­can Joint Chiefs of Staff, ar­rived in Bagh­dad on Fri­day on a sur­prise visit. He said he wanted “to get a sense from our side about how our con­tri­bu­tion is go­ing”.

Ear­lier in the week, he told Congress that to de­feat Is­lamic State an ef­fi­cient army of 80 000 men would be nec­es­sary. Few in Iraq be­lieve the reg­u­lar army is up to the task, de­spite win­ning a suc­cess last week by re­tak­ing the re­fin­ery town of Baiji and lifting the siege of the re­fin­ery, the largest in Iraq.

In a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view, Hus­sein spelt out the new bal­ance of power in Iraq in the wake of the Is­lamic mil­i­tants’ sum­mer of­fen­sive and the mil­i­tary re-en­gage­ment of the US. The Kur­dis­tan re­gional gov­ern­ment now faces Is­lamic State units along a 1 046km front line cut­ting across north­ern Iraq be­tween Iran and Syria.

Hus­sein said the US air in­ter­ven­tion had en­abled the Kurds to hold out when the un­ex­pected Is­lamic State as­sault in Au­gust de­feated the pesh­merga and came close to cap­tur­ing the Kur­dish cap­i­tal Irbil.

As well as terrifying its op­po­nents by pub­li­cis­ing its own atroc­i­ties, Is­lamic State has de­vel­oped an ef­fec­tive cock­tail of tac­tics that in­cludes sui­cide bombers, mines, snipers and use of US equip­ment cap­tured from the Iraqi army such as Humvees, ar­tillery and tanks. To com­bat them, Hus­sein says the Kurds need Apache he­li­copters and heavy weapons such as tanks.

The Kur­dish lead­ers are now much more re­laxed about Is­lamic State be­cause they have a US guar­an­tee of their se­cu­rity. The grim ex­pe­ri­ence of the US in see­ing the col­lapse of the gov­ern­ment and army in Bagh­dad, which the Americans had fos­tered at vast ex­pense, also works in favour of the Kurds.

Hus­sein does not like to talk about it, but the Kur­dis­tan re­gional gov­ern­ment got a nasty sur­prise in Au­gust when it asked the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment for help in stop­ping Is­lamic State only to be told Ankara planned no im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance.

It was only then that the Kurds turned to Iran and the US, both of which im­medi- ately acted to pre­vent a com­plete vic­tory by the Is­lamic mil­i­tants. Iran sent some of­fi­cers, mil­i­tary units and ar­tillery while the US started air strikes on Au­gust 8.

Hus­sein spec­u­lates that the CIA and US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies may only have been speak­ing about “core” fight­ers in claim­ing the ji­hadis had at most 31 500 men un­der arms.

But the fight­ing over the past five months has shown Is­lamic State has be­come a for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary force.

“We are talk­ing about a state that has a mil­i­tary and ide­o­log­i­cal ba­sis,” said Hus­sein, “so that means they want ev­ery­one to learn how to use a ri­fle, but they also want every­body to have train­ing in their ide­ol­ogy, in other words brain­wash­ing.”

A sign of the mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al­ism of Is­lamic State is the speed with which they learnt to use US tanks, ar­tillery and other heavy equip­ment cap­tured after the fall of Mo­sul on June 10.

The same thing hap­pened in Syria where Is­lamic State cap­tured Rus­sian­made arms which it rapidly started us­ing. The most likely ex­pla­na­tion for this is that Is­lamic State’s ranks con­tain many for­mer Iraqi and Syr­ian sol­diers whose skills it has iden­ti­fied. Hus­sein says the pesh­merga has been im­pressed dur­ing the fight­ing by Is­lamic State’s train­ing and dis­ci­pline.

“They will fight un­til death and are dan­ger­ous be­cause they are so well-trained,” said Hus­sein.

“For in­stance, they have the best snipers, but to be a good sniper you need dis­ci­pline in stay­ing put for up to five hours so you can hit your tar­get.”

There is sup­port­ing ev­i­dence for Hus­sein’s high es­ti­mate for Is­lamic State num­bers. A study by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser’s of­fice in Bagh­dad be­fore its of­fen­sive showed that, when 100 ji­hadis en­tered a dis­trict, they would soon re­cruit be­tween five and 10 times their orig­i­nal num­ber. There are re­ports of many young men vol­un­teer­ing to fight for Is­lamic State when they were in the full flood of suc­cess.

In an im­pov­er­ished re­gion with few jobs, Is­lamic State pay of $400 (R4 442) a month is also at­trac­tive. More­over, Hus­sein says that in the places they have con- quered, Is­lamic State is re­mod­elling so­ci­ety in its own im­age, aim­ing to ed­u­cate peo­ple into ac­cept­ing its ide­ol­ogy.

The Kurds have re­cov­ered their mil­i­tary self-con­fi­dence in the knowl­edge that they are backed by the US and Iran.

The pesh­merga have taken back some towns lost in Au­gust. But there are lim­its to how far the Kurds are will­ing to ad­vance. Hus­sein says the Kurds can help an Iraqi army, sup­pos­ing a non-sec­tar­ian one is cre­ated, but “the Kurds can­not lib­er­ate the Sunni Arab ar­eas”.

This is the great prob­lem fac­ing a counter- of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State by Bagh­dad or the Kurds: It will be seen by the 5 or 6 mil­lion Sunni Arabs in Iraq as di­rected against their whole com­mu­nity.

Hith­erto, the US has been hop­ing to re­peat its suc­cess be­tween 2006 and 2008 in turn­ing many Sunni against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Hus­sein ticks off the rea­sons why re­peat­ing this will be dif­fi­cult: The Americans then had 150 000 sol­diers in Iraq to back up anti-al-Qaeda tribal lead­ers. Is­lamic State will sav­agely pun­ish any­body who op­poses it.

Over­all, Hus­sein says he does not see any con­vinc­ing sign of re­sis­tance from the Sunni Arabs. Many of them may be un­happy, but this is not trans­lat­ing into ef­fec­tive op­po­si­tion. Nor is it clear what out­side force could or­gan­ise re­sis­tance. The Iraqi army might be ac­cept­able in Sunni ar­eas but only if it is re­con­sti­tuted so that it is not dom­i­nated by the Shia.

Hus­sein did not say so, but it may be too late to es­tab­lish a com­pe­tent cross-con­fes­sional reg­u­lar army in Iraq. The coun­terof­fen­sive by Bagh­dad is led by the three main Shia mili­tias which have almost the same ide­o­log­i­cal fer­vour and sec­tar­ian ha­tred as Is­lamic State. Any ad­vance on the bat­tle­field leads to the pop­u­la­tion deemed loyal to the los­ing side tak­ing flight so the whole of north­ern Iraq has be­come a land of refugees. – The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day


A RE­SILIENT EN­EMY: A Kur­dish man holds a flag dur­ing a re­li­gious ser­vice for two fight­ers killed in the Syr­ian town of Kobani, in Caykara, on the Turkey-Syria bor­der on Sun­day. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its sur­round­ing ar­eas has been un­der as­sault by Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists since mid-Septem­ber and is be­ing de­fended by Kur­dish fight­ers who may stem the bleed­ing, says the writer, but Is­lamic State will be hard to de­feat.

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