Desert winds blew through the sides of the makeshift tent, bringing dust and some relief from the heat to the soldiers inside at this Iraqi Army staging area 45 miles north of Baghdad.
They were in an optimistic mood: After two days of shelling fighters of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) group in Al Safra village, a few miles to the east, that morning they had begun their ground advance.
Fighting was still under way, they said, the route riddled with explosives, and snipers still active. But victory appeared inevitable, the white flags flying from rooftops a welcome sign.
“I am 80 percent confident we will keep defeating the enemy ... and retake all the places captured by IS,” says Lt. Mohamed Kadhim, a cleanshaven Shiite from Baghdad’s Sadr City district who carries a star on each epaulet and a considered poise.
Its bid to retake territory from IS is but a slice of the huge task awaiting Iraq’s Army across the country after an embarrassing string of retreats this summer in the face of advancing jihadist forces. In battle after battle, IS fighters showed discipline, organization, and a willingness to sacrifice their lives.
But the Iraqi Army, trained and armed by the United States at the cost of $25 billion, betrayed few of those qualities. If the Army is to serve as a vital ally of the US in its campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS, first comes the monumental challenge of building a resourceful fighting force, motivated by a belief in its cause and led by a charismatic and brave officer corps.
“An army is an awful lot more than equipment and some sort of training,” says Charles Heyman, a British military analyst who has followed Iraq for years and edited the book series “The Armed Forces of the European Union.”
“It needs something deep down inside of it to draw from when the chips are down. [It] needs people who get up and say, ‘Follow me, boys,’ and that’s what’s lacking” in Iraq, says Mr. Heyman, noting that quality officers are spread too thin and there’s a “lack of middle management.”
Iraqi soldiers “are as brave and as motivated, if you get it right, as anybody else, but they lack that leadership across the board,” Heyman says.
The lessons learned in Iraq from the last four months of constant frontline contact with IS forces may prove invaluable as President Obama prosecutes his anti-IS campaign, which has expanded to include airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and has since brought in new members from Europe and the Arab world.
On the ground in Iraq, the fight has revealed much about IS tactics, strengths, and weaknesses, even as its lightning advance this summer starkly exposed the long list of the needs of Iraqi forces – from more helicopters to communications gear to yet more training – if they are to regroup and fight back.
Units’ fortunes are mixed
At this windblown staging post, the young men’s optimism for Iraq’s battle against IS may have been warranted, an early sign that the Iraqi Army, trained and equipped by the US, is beginning to reverse the failures of June. Back then, divisions disintegrated before the advance of far smaller jihadist forces, leaving nearly a third of Iraq under IS control.
Now, only days later, these soldiers reported that they were in Al Safra village, had “cut all IS logistics,” and were continuing their advance in Diyala Province.
But that battlefield-eye view can also be deceptive, as Iraq’s security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Shiite militias all engage IS on dozens of front lines across northern and western Iraq.
Even as Kadhim’s Fifth Division was making progress, other Iraqi units were in deep trouble.
On Sept. 21, for example, an Iraqi counterterrorism operation failed to break a week-long IS siege of the Saqlawiya base north of Fallujah, Iraq. Instead, five IS suicide bombers masquerading as the rescuers – one of them driving a troop carrier and one a Humvee, both packed with explosives and detonated inside the base – ended the stalemate in scenes of bloody chaos. Witnesses say hundreds were killed. The battalion headquarters was lost.
In a first shake-up of the military’s top brass, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently ordered the retirement of two of the Army’s top commanders. They were loyalists of the former Shiite premier, Nouri al-Maliki, long accused of undermining Army readiness by appointing incompetent loyalists to high ranks and using the Army to target restless Sunni regions – actions that helped feed popular support for IS.
Mr. Abadi has promised more inclusive rule, and more purging of top ranks is expected. But damage has been severe to a military force struggling to save itself. The previous week, US aircraft targeted IS positions 20 miles southwest of Baghdad in their first foray near the capital.
“If [IS fighters] were not making progress, the Americans would not have struck them,” says Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst in Baghdad.
Mr. Hashimi describes a well-organized fighting machine in which 300 to 350 IS fighters per group are currently fighting on 33 fronts in Iraq, in six different provinces.
He estimates that there are more than 10,000 active IS fighters in Iraq, with a further 12,000 to 15,000 in Syria. The US Central Intelligence Agency recently upgraded its own figures to a range of 20,000 to 31,500 in IS.
Iraqi military and intelligence sources calculate that IS occupied 32 percent of Iraqi territory from early June. Since US airstrikes began in early August, that percentage slipped to roughly 28 percent in late September.
Four necessary elements
Hashimi says four indispensable elements are required to defeat IS: US airstrikes, special units to target the IS leadership, Iraqi forces fighting alongside Kurdish peshmerga, and the participation of local Sunnis.
The backbone will be the recasting of Iraq’s own military forces. Iraqis are long-used to bad news from Iraq’s front lines – from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to the 1990-91 Kuwait misadventure to the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the sectarian bloodletting and insurgency unleashed by the US occupation.
The billions of dollars invested by Washington to forge a new Iraqi Army, some 270,000-strong on paper, was meant to change that narrative. Yet Iraqi officers and soldiers describe instances of neglect and mismanagement, of low morale and levels of unpreparedness, that have enabled IS to make dramatic gains with shock assaults and far fewer numbers.
“We have a shortage of helicopters,” says Mohamed (he declined to give his last name), an Iraqi helicopter gunner whose Russian-made Mi-17 has inserted Special Forces units into hot spots, such as the Baiji oil refinery and Tikrit, and has evacuated families from areas besieged by the jihadists.
IS attacked his bird “every time” during such operations, and “even our helicopters are very tired” after often flying far beyond their maintenance range of 600-plus miles, he says.
Mohamed’s flight crews are waiting for 25 to 30 more Russian-made Mi-28 attack helicopters, which have been on order from Russia since 2012.
Mohamed says he’ll never forget the thick-bearded fighter who took on his helicopter with only an AK-47 assault rifle, leaping down from a high perch and shooting all the while, just like in the movies. Mohamed shot him dead at just 30 yards.
In yet another story of exceptional resilience, one IS sniper was found strapped high up among telephone poles in such a way that he would not have to leave his post. He was fed by an intravenous tube and was wearing a diaper; he apparently kept Iraqi units, which could not see him, at bay for two days in Garma. He died from a small shrapnel wound to the neck.
“These people have a very tough ideology and very good training. For them it’s a battle between infidels and believers, and all against them are infidels,” says Mohamed, who has a degree in Islamic science. The American airstrikes “help us a lot. But if there is a real US troop intervention it will be a big problem; [the anti-US insurgency] will fire up again.”
There is no shortage of determination, if Kadhim’s advancing soldiers are any measure. He says the Army has changed tactics to fight IS and now fields cheaper and faster pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns – just like IS and some Shiite militias.
“We will not leave this country to IS,” says Maythem Jassim Allawi, a Sunni soldier from Fallujah, whose brother, a first lieutenant, was killed fighting IS seven months ago. Their Fifth Division is now the strongest in Iraq, he says, because “we stand and fight all this time.”
“We were shocked when they moved toward Baghdad,” adds soldier Mohamed Ahmed, from Diyala Province, “and they were shocked when they saw us, because we stopped them.”
But not all Iraqi units have been so lucky, and the learning curve is steep. These Fifth Division soldiers joke good-naturedly about their own ethnic and cultural diversity, with a handful of Shiites, an eager Sunni, and a thoughtful Kurd all in one tent.
They attribute the collapse of other divisions to sectarian frictions and poor leadership. The Second Division’s Sunni commanders from Tikrit, for example, simply left when the Sunni extremists attacked.
Other divisions had not been trained long enough or well enough to fight an enemy “exaggerated to the size of monsters” by the news media, they say, and panicked at first contact. Iraqi soldiers also speak of poor leadership and being sent to fight under-
equipped and with little incentive to engage.
Just south of Mosul, for example, is the remote patch of desert where another Iraqi captain first experienced battle with IS fighters. He was deployed last spring to protect oil pipelines from smugglers as part of a unit that – like his entire freshly minted division, he says – was not yet qualified to fight. What followed was a military debacle.
The eight-year veteran with a slight build was given two platoons with 30 soldiers each – many in the military just a few months. When IS was about to attack, they were reinforced with 15 more.
“They had come from training camps, and couldn’t hit a target with a Kalashnikov at 10 yards,” recalls the captain, who asked not to be named. The guns were old and the unit had no radios, so it had to rely on mobile phones to reach superiors. It had two Humvees and a 60mm mortar with just three rounds.
As IS advanced, at night the Iraqi soldiers received orders to withdraw to join the next largest unit, and did so by foot across the desert, IS mortar fire chasing them all the way. Arriving at battalion headquarters they came under immediate attack and called for support.
“There was none,” recalls the captain. They were then ordered to withdraw further, to join the far larger mass of troops at Speicher base. IS attacked soon after their arrival, and his soldiers were ordered to take a 15-day leave by division top brass new to the job. The captain left early enough, but many did not: IS claims it caught 1,700 Iraqi soldiers and massacred them.
Amazed by incompetence
The captain’s next brush with IS told him even more about their capabilities – and the shortcomings of the Army. Transferred to a new division, he was sent west to Ramadi. He was placed with a cobbled-together unit and ordered to liberate a village, emptied of residents, that had become an IS stronghold and been shelled by Iraqi artillery for days. Three days later the attack failed.
“The Iraqi Army was shelling with 155mm rounds, but it did not affect IS at all because it was random,” the captain, still amazed at the incompetence, says in his Baghdad home while recovering from shrapnel wounds he sustained in the battle.
“But [IS fighters] use two mortars, wound three and kill one, and knock out several vehicles. The enemy has the map and knows exactly where they are shooting.”
Officers lament that too many in uniform are there only to draw their paychecks, not to fulfill a national mission to protect and defend Iraq.
“Sure, we could have stopped IS from making so many advances ... if we had decided to fight,” says the wounded Iraqi captain, noting the value of air support – or any backup at all.
“If there is very close support for you, you won’t die. You will stand and fight and not give up so many casualties,” says the captain. “I am disappointed because the Army doesn’t have real faith to protect the country.”