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Iraq’s armed forces urgently need reform

The unsettling detail of the Iraqi army’s final conquest of Mosul from terrorist forces was the sectarian flags and icons that decorated military vehicles. The recapture seemed a pyrrhic victory that was caught up in the religious, ethnic and political divisions that plague Iraq.

With a supposed active force of some 270,000 military personnel, the army could only field 48,000 as Daesh overran swathes of Iraq in 2014. The country’s military institutions, babied by the US since the 2003 invasion, have suffered from corruption, administrative dysfunction and sectarianism that have affected their potency as a fighting force.

An understanding of the modern history of Iraq’s armed forces is essential to explaining its failure today. Set up by the British after the 1920 revolt, since its inception Iraq’s army has been a force geared toward internal security. Its first major action was putting down a Kurdish insurrection in Sulaimaniyah in 1924, and its subsequent involvement in the coups of 1936, 1941, 1958, 1963 and 1968 ensured it remained prey to factionalism and politicization.

Its only wartime battle engagements in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait were all military failures. Since then, sanctions and the consequences of the US-led invasion have stripped it of its ability to institutionalize, leaving it a hive of corruption and infighting.

Daesh’s dramatic initial success was in great part due to the unpreparedness and inefficiencies of Iraq’s army. In the context of the group’s initial conquest of Mosul, 800 fighters dislodged 30,000 Iraqi troops who scarpered from their 40-1 advantage over the enemy. Troops ill-trained to fight and unwilling to die for the authorities led to a state of affairs where the terrorists controlled up to 40 percent of the country.

The post-invasion Iraqi authorities have failed to build a state that all citizens are willing to subscribe to, reflected in the ineffectiveness of its fighting men and the ease with which civilians were absorbed by Daesh. The lack of inclusiveness in the Iraqi state is perfectly reflected in the security forces. Under the divisive tenure of former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, nepotism and rampant corruption came to characterize the military.

Hollowed out by the resignation of senior and experienced officers following de-Baathification, the force shrunk and became heavily reliant on sectarian militias. Between 70,000 and 120,000 militiamen have played a central role in the army’s push from the Shiite-dominated south to the Daesh-controlled north and west.

The sectarian nature of these militias has raised serious questions about their role in Iraq going forward. Hard-line cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has now been renamed the Peace Companies, has publically called for the role of such militias to be curtailed in post-Daesh Iraq.

The authorities must combat racism, discrimination and sectarianism to strengthen the unity of their fighting force, and to encourage all elements of society to take part in the defense of the nation. The army must be molded into a national institution that seeks to defend all Iraqis.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The sectarian nature of these militias alongside certain elements of the army has exacerbated an already very delicate state-building process that Iraq desperately needs. The military’s adoption of apocalyptic sectarian discourse alongside religious acts and iconography defies international conventions that oblige states to work to prevent racist practices and actions that cause intolerance and human rights violations.

The disproportionate violence of some Iraqi army units in areas retaken from Daesh are of great concern. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law; this includes most of the aforementioned violations.

In this context, the Iraqi authorities must combat racism, discrimination and sectarianism to strengthen the unity of their fighting force, and to encourage all elements of society to take part in the defense of the nation.

Arguably the most compelling case against the issues with which the army has been associated is that of “ghost soldiers,” when in 2014 50,000 fictitious members of the armed forces were identified. It transpired that over 120 billion Iraqi dinars ($104 million) had been diverted to the pockets of corrupt commanders as a result of the affair.

More worryingly, the scandal contributed to the significant lack of boots on the ground, deeply impacting the performance of Iraqi troops in Mosul, Salahuddin and Anbar — in some cases, the fighting capability of battalions was no more than 20 percent, according to senior commanders.

Such instances have highlighted to both the authorities and international audiences that Iraq’s forces are as yet unable to defend the country. Symptomatic of this problem, as the Pentagon signs off on the further supply of resources to Iraqi forces, the New York Times reported that “some of the weaponry recently supplied by the army has already ended up on the black market and in the hands of Islamic State (Daesh) fighters.”

Following a long battle against the terror groups operating in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has promised a crackdown on corruption. Going forward, the army must be molded into a national institution that seeks to defend all Iraqis.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).