Once-feeble Iraqi army has muscled into a fighting force
U.S.-led coalition helped transform troops in just two years
Two years ago Iraq’s military all but collapsed as Islamic State militants swept into their country, seizing Mosul and other key towns and villages. Many Iraqi soldiers simply abandoned their equipment and fled.
At the time, the Islamic State looked invincible, while the Iraqi forces were demoralized, poorly trained and ill-equipped.
Today, Iraq’s military has a string of victories behind it and is on the verge of charging into Mosul, the militants’ last stronghold in Iraq.
This time, the Islamic State is retreating, and it is the Iraqi troops that look formidable.
In the intervening years, a U.S.led coalition and Iraq’s government have achieved an unprecedented overhaul of Iraq’s armed forces, replacing commanders, training soldiers and issuing new weapons and equipment. They are about to face their most important test yet.
“They are a far cry from where they were in 2014,” said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The coalition has established schools throughout Iraq to teach infantry, armor and tank skills to Iraqi soldiers. The 12 Iraqi and Kurdish brigades — about 30,000 soldiers — participating in the Mosul offensive have all been trained by the coalition in skills such as clearing minefields and removing roadside bombs.
The United States has supplied Iraq’s military with the latest M1 Abrams tanks, M4 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition.
The coalition also has placed American advisers at division and brigade headquarters to help commanders direct large combat formations while coordinating air and artillery strikes during complex operations.
“They (Iraq’s army in 2014) got caught with an enemy that was, frankly at that time, more capable than they were,” said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the coalition’s top ground commander in Iraq.
Only last year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter complained that Iraqi forces lacked “the will to fight” the Islamic State.
But a string of victories starting late last year, including clearing militants out of Fallujah and Ramadi, have bolstered the confidence of soldiers, a key factor in restoring a will to fight. “Every time they take a piece of terrain away from (the Islamic State), that’s a drumbeat,” Volesky said. “That drumbeat is getting louder and louder every step they get closer to Mosul.”
Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is by far the largest challenge yet for Iraq’s newly formed military. The city, with 1 million or more civilians, is far bigger than Fallujah and Ramadi. It is defended by 3,000 to 5,000 militants.
The fighting will get tougher as Iraqi and Kurdish forces begin entering the city where they face the highest concentration of booby traps, tunnels and the most hardened fighters. “The closer they get to Mosul the harder it will be,” Volesky said.
A successful Iraqi offensive to recapture Mosul, which began Monday, would be a remarkable turnaround for the force and a triumph for U.S. training.
“We basically have had to start from scratch to rebuild the confidence and cohesion of the Iraqi military,” said James Howcroft, director of terrorism and security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
After the United States withdrew combat troops from Iraq in 2011, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replaced Iraq’s professional commanders with fellow Shiites who were political loyalists.
Iraq’s military virtually stopped training, which is the lifeblood of any military organization. Equipment fell into disrepair.
Many of the professional officers replaced by al-Maliki had been promoted under the supervision of the U.S. military. The U.S. invested billions of dollars in building Iraq’s armed forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The 2014 defeat amounted to a wake-up call for Iraq’s government. Under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who replaced alMaliki, professional officers have been reinstalled to command combat units. The U.S. military was invited to return to rebuild the armed forces.
Since then, the coalition has trained more than 35,000 Iraqi troops. The United States now has about 5,000 troops in Iraq serving as advisers and trainers or personnel to protect and support them.
Analysts worry about what will happen if the United States leaves again once the bulk of the Islamic State force is defeated.
Pollack said al-Abadi will have to withstand enormous pressure from various power brokers, including Shiite militias. Historically, a military force is only as cohesive as the government it supports.
“We cannot walk away again,” Pollack said.
“We basically have had to start from scratch to rebuild the confidence and cohesion of the Iraqi military.” James Howcroft, director of terrorism and security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
An Iraqi self-propelled howitzer fires toward the village of Tall al-Tibah, south of Mosul, on Wednesday.