A 17-month U.S. effort to requalify and reunify Iraq’s regular army did not succeed in creating a large number of operative Iraqi combat units. The efforts also failed to limit the influence of sectarian militias, according to current and former U.S. military and civilian officials.
Worrisome about the failings of the American effort to reinforce the Iraqi military comes as Iraqi government forces and militias have launched an offensive to retake the city of Falluja from ISIS.
The persistent weakness of regular Iraqi army units and dependence on Shi’ite militias could impede Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s broader effort to defeat ISIS and win the long-term support of Iraqi Sunnis, according to current and former U.S. military officials.
Although critics approve that there have been shy military successes, citing the continued victories of American-trained Iraqi Special Forces, who have been fighting ISIS for two years, however the presence of 4,000 American troops did not make a change to the underlying Iraqi political dynamics that control the rising power of sectarian militias.
Two senior U.S. military officers and retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mick Bednarek said that with few exceptions, the most effective and only truly non-sectarian Iraqi government fighting force is the Iraqi Special Forces, sometimes called the Counter-Terrorism Service.
Regular Iraqi army units have watched from the sidelines as Iraqi Special Forces and Shi’ite militias have reclaimed land from ISIS, current and former U.S. military officials said. In sequence, militias have repeatedly taken advantage of the power vacuums that have emerged after ISIS defeats.
And after Iraqi Special Forces, aided by U.S. air strikes, captured a strategic oil refinery in the town of Baiji in October, Shi’ite militias looted all of its salvageable equipment, according to a senior U.S. military official and three Iraqi government officials.
Over the past year, U.S. 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.
“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 U.S. 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.”
An Official Body
Iraqi government and senior paramilitary leaders said the reports of poor training and Shi’ite militia dominance in the military are false. They said the militias follow the orders of the prime minister and his military commanders.
Iraqi defense ministry spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool called the militias “an official body connected with the office of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.” He said they take their orders only from government officials and “have a great role in supporting the army forces and the federal police.”
But current and former U.S. military officials and local Sunni leaders say the militias continue to take advantage of the vacuums that emerge in predominantly Sunni areas after ISIS forces are defeated. A lack of strong regular army units allows the militias to remain the dominant players.
Norman Ricklefs, a former U.S. government adviser to the Iraqi interior and defense ministries said“In the cities the militias occupy – Samarra and Tikrit and significant parts of eastern Baghdad – they are the most powerful force.”