U.S.-backed Iraqi special forces struggle to regroup after fight for Mosul
When the Iraqi government launched an online recruitment drive for its elite counterterrorism forces in May, a startling 300,000 men applied. Of those, 3,000 passed a preliminary screening. Only about 1,000 are expected to be accepted into the rigorous U.S.-Iraqi training academy, an American military trainer said.
The staggering response points to the popularity of the “Golden Division” following its high-profile role in wresting back territory from the Islamic State. But the selection process highlights the challenge of rebuilding a force that the United States says lost 40 percent of its human and military resources in the nine-month battle for the city of Mosul.
The counterterrorism troops, numbering only about 10,000, are the undisputed cream of Iraq’s armed forces, but powerful Iran-backed majority Shiite militias are also among the most trusted fighters in the nation. Both are remembered as the forces that stemmed the Islamic State’s march on Iraq in 2014 — as traditional army and police divisions collapsed — and later led the expulsion of the extremist group from its major territorial holdings.
With several important towns in Iraq still under Islamic State control, quickly regrouping the counterterrorism forces remains a priority in the short term. But the force’s strength also has long-term implications for Iraq’s ability to prevent another insurgency from growing.
Replenishing the Golden Division will also likely determine whether Iraq will rely on a regular force firmly under government command to finish the job against the Islamic State and prevent a successor group from forming — or if that task will fall to the militias, known as the popular mobilization units, which have become legal entities of Iraq’s security forces but operate mostly outside the control of the central government in Baghdad.
For the United States the latter is not an option, given the militias’ intimate ties to Iran, and the training and equipping of new Iraqi commandos is quickly becoming central to U.S. policy in Iraq.
“Without this funding, there could be greater opportunities for other states, including the Russian Federation and Iran, to expand their influence in Iraq,” the Department of Defense wrote in a May budget proposal outlining the nearly $1.3 billion request for the training and equipping mission in Iraq for the 2018 fiscal year.