U.S.-backed Iraqi spe­cial forces strug­gle to re­group af­ter fight for Mo­sul

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY TAMER EL-GHOBASHY tamer.el­ghobashy@wash­post.com

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.

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