A 17-month US effort to retrain and reunify Iraq’s army has failed to create a large number of effective Iraqi combat units or limit the power of sectarian militias, according current and former US military and civilian officials.
Retired Lt Gen Mick Bednarek, who commanded the US military training effort in Iraq from 2013 to 2015, said the Iraqi army had not improved dramatically in the past eight months. He blamed a variety of problems, from a lack of Iraqis wanting to join the military to the resistance of some lower-level Iraqi officers to sending units to American training.
“The Iraqi military’s capacity hasn’t improved that much – part of that is the continuing challenge of recruitment and retention,” he said.
The weakness of the army and reliance on Shiite militias could impede prime minister Haider Al Abadi’s broader effort to defeat ISIL and win the long-term support of Iraqi Sunnis. The sectarian divide between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni communities threatens to split the country for good.
There have been some successes, such as the US-trained Iraqi special forces, or Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) who are leading the offensive against ISIL in Fallujah. American officials described the CTS as the most effective and only truly non-sectarian Iraqi government fighting force but expressed worry that they may burn out after nearly two years of continuous combat against the extremists.
Across Iraq, regular army units have largely watched from the sidelines as the CTS and Shiite militias have reclaimed land from ISIL, the officials said, with the militias repeatedly taking advantage of the power vacuums following ISIL defeats.
According to both US and Iraqi officials, the Iraqi military operations command of Salahuddin province is dominated by a Shiite militia leader, Abu Mehdi Mohandis, while the Fifth Army Division in eastern Diyala province is considered to be under the command of the Badr group, a powerful Shiiite militia and political party with strong ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
In Baghdad, US military officers estimate that 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the 300 officers who run the military’s operations command have an affinity or association with either the Badr militia or the Shiite religious leader Muqtada Al Sadr.
Over the past year, US military officers have struggled to ensure that militias do not seize American weaponry delivered to the main Iraqi army supply depot in Taji and to a brigade in the Saqlawiya region outside Fallujah.
“We would transfer arms to units in those areas – and either because of corrupt commanders or outright robbery – they would end up in the hands of the militia groups,” said one officer. The officer noted, however, that controls have been tightened and the number of cases was small. “You can’t eliminate it entirely. It’s just not realistic.”