Once-fee­ble Iraqi army has mus­cled into a fight­ing force

U.S.-led coali­tion helped trans­form troops in just two years

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Jim Michaels @jim­michaels USA TODAY

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

AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE, AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

An Iraqi self-pro­pelled how­itzer fires to­ward the vil­lage of Tall al-Tibah, south of Mo­sul, on Wed­nes­day.

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