Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s army under friendly fire

Criticisms of the dysfunctional Iraqi army are well-deserved, but there could be a hidden agenda behind them, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Writing in the New York Times on 6 September 2007, former American governor of Iraq Paul Bremer described the army he ordered to be built following the US-led invasion in 2003 as “the country’s most effective and trusted security force.”

“By contrast, the Baathist-era police force, which we did recall to duty, has proven unreliable and is mistrusted by the very Iraqi people it is supposed to protect,” Bremer wrote, the man who ordered the disbanding of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army and its replacement with the new force.

“In fact the policy was carefully considered by top civilian and military members of the American government. And it was the right decision,” he concluded. When US President Barack Obama decided to pull out US troops in 2011 one alibi he used to answer critics was that the Iraqi army was capable of filling the country’s security vacuum. 

The American assessment has routinely been challenged since and experts have warned of fundamental problems with the new Iraqi army. Though the United States has spent some $25 billion and several years training, the army has been fraught with corruption, inefficiency and lack of fighting skills. Its most serious problem has remained sectarianism.

It took the near total collapse of the Iraqi army when the Islamic State (IS) terror group advanced into northern and western Iraq in June and captured huge chunks of land and arsenals of abandoned weapons for Washington to admit that the army it had created was nothing but a rag-tag force.

In recent weeks, however, US officials have started delivering their criticisms to the Iraqi security forces publicly. The mainstream US media have been awash with stories based on official leaks about the army’s incompetence and sectarianism, effectively ruling out the force from efforts to liberate areas taken by IS.

In a front-page report last week the Washington Post talked about “the larger decay across Iraq’s security forces and institutions”. It described it as a “deeply rooted phenomenon that undermines the country’s stability”. 

“The force is also insufficient on its own to retake strategic cities such as Mosul,” wrote the paper.

Its main competitor, the New York Times, detailed “entrenched corruption” among top commanders who were involved in businesses such as selling soldiers’ provisions, liquor on the job, or officer commissions. The paper noted that the pattern of corruption and patronage in the Iraqi forces threatened to undermine a new American-led effort to drive out IS extremists.

The Los Angeles Times, another leading US paper, joined the anti-Iraqi army chorus and in a report it concluded that the main factor behind the collapse of the army was its “rampant corruption.” It said the army’s equipment and ammunition was being sold by officers on the black market.

The US media blitz seems to echo similar criticisms by the leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni communities who are at loggerheads with the Shia-led central government which controls the security forces. Leaders of both communities are now pushing for dealing with the Americans independently from Baghdad, including direct weapons deliveries and training.

In a series of interviews last week Kurdish politician and Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari lambasted the rampant corruption and mismanagement in the army. In one interview with Reuters, Zebari said that “only the Sunni tribes are the ones who can deliver” in the war against IS.

Jamal Mohamed, chief-of-staff of the Kurdish forces the Peshmergas, told the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper last week that Baghdad’s insistence on deliveries of weapons being made through its airport was delaying the liberation of territories seized by IS.

Sunni leaders were even more blunt. The main Sunni bloc in the parliament, the Iraqi National Forces, has appealed to Washington to send weapons and ground troops to help Sunni tribes in the fight against IS.

While frustration with the post-Saddam Iraqi security forces is justified, this sudden surge of US, Kurdish and Sunni criticisms seems to be orchestrated to prove a point. The Iraqi government-controlled security forces are becoming a problem, and the United States and its allies in the international coalition should deal directly with the Kurdish and Sunni forces, critics say.

But the roots of the Iraqi army’s problems lie with the US occupation, which dismantled the Iraqi state and dissolved the army and built a political system along ethnic and sectarian lines. After the ouster of Saddam, Shia groups insisted that the army should be put under their control, believing that ensuring security for the country’s reconstruction needed an army loyal to the central government in which they were a majority.

But during former Shia prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s eight years in office Iraq’s security forces became sectarian due to his policies of exclusion and marginalisation against the Sunnis and his staffing the army and police with corrupt cronies.

His successor, Haider Al-Abadi, then faced the daunting task of fixing the security forces’ problems.

On Sunday, Al-Abadi disclosed that an investigation into corruption in the Iraqi army had revealed that there were 50,000 false names on its payroll. Known by Iraqis as “ghost soldiers,” because they do not exist while receiving salaries, these false names have undermanned the security forces’ capabilities in facing security challenges.

Last month Al-Abadi ordered a major shakeup of the military by relieving 26 army officers of their commands and retiring 10 others for corruption and incompetence. He appointed 18 new commanders as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military “on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms”. 

Al-Abadi is also now trying to reform the Ministry of the Interior and the vast police force it controls. On Monday he fired 24 senior officers, a few days after removing the deputy minister responsible who was accused of negligence and mismanagement. A plan for overhauling the force is also underway

The question now is how far Al-Abadi can go in reforming the army and police without sparking accusations that he is weakening the Shia grip on the security forces.

Iraqi Shia lawmakers have vehemently rejected the US-proposed and mainly Sunni-dominated national guard that would police the Sunni provinces. They also reject the idea of US training or supply of weapons to Sunni tribes without government approval and supervision.

Shia groups have also been resisting pressures to cooperate with the Iranian-backed Shia militias that are playing a key role in the war against IS by fighting alongside the security forces. Thousands of Shia have volunteered for these militias since the IS made its advances in June.

On Sunday, Al-Abadi ordered the payment of salaries to some 21,000 Shia volunteers whom the government now plans to accommodate in the national guard.

But as criticisms of the army and praise for Al-Abadi’s reforms make the headlines, other aspects of the story have begun to unfold.

On Monday, the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper revealed that Washington had informed a Sunni delegation that it would start training some 100,000 Sunni fighters to combat IS. The paper quoted members of the delegation, which includes politicians, tribal chieftains and former insurgents, that the force would also police the Sunni areas after IS’s expulsion.

The delegates told Al-Hayat that the programme would be carried out without Baghdad’s consent.

If it could somehow be implemented, this would mean that Washington was creating a Sunni armed force independent of the central government. With the Kurdish Peshmergas already operating independently from Baghdad, Iraq would then have three armies on the ground with all the implications and consequences this could have on a nation enmeshed in a civil war.

The Iranians, meanwhile, seem to have their own vision, or even plans, for Iraq’s security forces. On 27 November, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement which went largely unnoticed. “The ideology of the Basij has reached Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and, God willing, it will reach Jerusalem soon,” he said, referring to Iran’s powerful paramilitary force which works as an auxiliary on security activities.

On 30 November, the Lebanese National News Agency quoted the leader of the Shia Hizbullah Party Hassan Nasrallah as warning of plans to “create a Sunni region in Iraq,” which he said would be annexed to Jordan with parts of Syrian territory under Sunni control. “This would be the alternative Palestinian state,” he was quoted as telling Al-Maliki who was on a visit to Lebanon.

As both Iran and Hizbullah continue to have stakes in giving strong political and military support to the Iraqi Shia, there is much to read into Khamenei’s and Nasrallah’s apocalyptic statements and the Baghdad government’s rejection of an autonomous Iraqi Sunni force.

The mere fact of having three armed forces built on ethno-sectarian lines would effectively mean Iraq was divided into three different entities. With Syria unravelling, the much-talked about scenario of combining the Sunni heartland in both Iraq and Syria in a larger Sunni country could become a reality.

That would be a nightmare for the Shia in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, who would be separated from each other by the new “Sunnistan.”

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