The government in Baghdad has hundreds of thousands of soldiers and armed police under its command. But a raft of deep structural problems is crippling the Iraqi army’s ability to fight ISIS militants.
In many of Iraq’s northern and western cities, the nation’s army has simply been overrun. In January, the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the central city of Ramadi and parts of Fallujah. Then in early June, they stormed the metropolis Mosul as well as several other major cities.
It was only with great difficulty and a huge effort that the army managed to fend off the Sunni extremists in some places.
Although Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki likes to be seen as a guarantor of security and stability, he seems powerless to stop the extremists’ advance towards Baghdad. Maliki’s only hope is to appeal for help from abroad.
Army with no power
Under dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq had about 375,000 soldiers in the armed forces. During the eight-year war with Iran, and the two Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003, the army suffered only defeats. The force was strong enough, however, to crush uprisings by Kurdish rebels and other groups.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the US administration disbanded the army, as it was considered a key pillar of the regime. Soldiers and military officers became unemployed overnight.
“These people went into hiding during the occupation,” said Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz, Germany. Many of these well-trained officers went on to fight against the government on the side of ISIS, he added.
From 2003 to 2011, the US military tried to build a new Iraqi army. But US advisors were later asked to leave the country because the Maliki government no longer approved of their mission.
At its current size, the Iraqi army is stronger than the ISIS forces, hands down. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the army currently has more than 270,000 troops. On top of this, the Interior Ministry has about 550,000 armed police and special forces under its command. Yet these resources have been overwhelmed in the fight against heavily armed terrorist groups and militias.
The army has about 340 tanks, according to the IISS. Among them are M1 Abrams tanks from the United States and old Soviet T-55s. They also have combat helicopters for air attacks.
The fighting in recent days has proven that ISIS militants are capable of holding their own against these weapons. The group also seized a large amount of heavy artillery from government forces during the surprise assault on Mosul.
Flawed chain of command
Despite its manpower and sizeable weaponry stocks, the Iraqi army is hardly powerful. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, the command structure is a key weakness. It’s tailored to Maliki, who currently serves as the defense and interior ministers, as well as the commander in chief of the army.
“Prime Minister al-Maliki has continuously worked to strengthen his control over the Iraqi army and security forces,” the authors of the CSIS report wrote. They said Maliki is using the state’s security apparatus for political control and repression.
Meyer said the officers’ ranks are also often awarded to government cronies and have little to with military competence.
Another problem is the country’s sectarian divide. Many Sunnis feel oppressed by the Shiite majority. The ISIS militants, on the other hand, present themselves as protectors of the Sunni minority against the Shiite-dominated government and its security forces.
If ISIS insurgents attack army posts in Sunni neighborhoods, Sunni soldiers leave their positions, take their weapons, and join the extremists. Meyer said the ISIS militants deliberately spread reports of government soldiers being slaughtered by the Islamist group to undermine morale.
However, the Mainz-based researcher added that when Sunni extremists attempt to advance through Shiite areas, they also meet with fierce opposition from Shiite militias. These groups have risen up to take the place of the failed army, to prevent the ISIS from conquering Shiite neighborhoods and destroying Shiite shrines.
Campaign poster for al-Maliki
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is asking for help from the international community to crush ISIS insurgents
Widespread corruption is another reason the Iraqi army is so weak. The CSIS report revealed that even when US advisors were in the country, many soldiers sold military equipment in an attempt to supplement their meager salaries.
In order to stop ISIS’ rapid advance, Maliki has turned to the United States for help. Washington has been providing weapons to support the Iraqi army against the militia since the beginning of 2014. “Now the demand will be that the Americans proceed with air strikes and drones against the ISIS forces,” said Meyer.
US President Barack Obama has stressed that options to help the government in Baghdad remain open. According to Meyer though, the government in Washington believes Maliki is the main offender and has brought the situation on himself. He said the deliberate discrimination of the Sunni minority is a main cause of the current conflict.