Iraq is back in the news as a motley gang of Former Regime Elements, various Ba’athist organizations, criminals, and Sunni tribal militia, with a smattering of Islamist rebels have seemingly seized control of two Anbar province . Sensational US reporting seems to picture the entire Anbar province being under the sway of Al Qaeda militants.
A recent article in an Arab newspaper claimed that a “million man” Iraqi army has been humiliated, unable to dislodge these insurgents from the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Both have always been strongholds of the Saddamists and high- level Ba’athist military officers. Not so long ago it was the scene of a bloody battle between many of the same organizations and US troops. Understandably U.S. media now laments the lives lost in an apparent useless cause since the same enemy seems to have regained what was recovered at a huge cost. Since the 1920’s Fallujah has been a hotbed of rebellion against British rule, several Arab governments, and the American occupation forces.
Firstly, as the blame and finger pointing begins, the usual culprit is Iraqi PM Al-Maliki, whose intransigence and anti Sunni stances have, according to conventional wisdom, driven the Sunnis to renewed violence. No doubt this is true as far as it goes, which is not very far. First of all al -Maliki has other fire breathing anti- Sunni politicians behind his back waiting for some show of weakness to appear. Many of the Shi’a politicians are more anti Sunni than al -Maliki . They include Muqtada al- Sadr, who despite his occasional appeals for Sunni support, is the one who unleashed the death squads that matched the Sunni terrorists atrocity for atrocity. Though totally missed by US journalistic coverage of the war, the Shi’a death squads brought to the Sunnis the realization that a price in blood was to be paid for their tacit or enthusiastic support of terror attacks on the Shi’a neighborhoods. These attacks had been going on for years finally culminating in a near civil war in 2006. While the “Surge” and Sunni “Awakening” played important roles, the Sunni backlash against the Islamist elements was driven in part as a reaction to the Shi’a retaliation.
Secondly as we apportion blame we should turn to the Robert Gates just-released book Duty. In discussing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Gates places much of the blame on prime Minister al -Maliki , whom he wrote did not try hard enough to convince other Iraqi leaders that the Americans were needed in Iraq. This was despite the fact that almost all the Iraqi leaders, in private, wanted the American military to stay. It is typical of Arabs to espouse the usual anti-American rhetoric in public and then talk to us out of the other side of their mouth. Wikileaks has made that clear. Also as anyone who has dealt with Arabs knows, every negotiation begins with NO. That is simply a starting point. Notably, Gates added that he was not sure how hard the White House tried to negotiate an agreement. But in fact, as the rest of the book suggests, he obviously does. Gates made it clear that Obama did not care about Iraq. Only domestic politics interested him, particularly getting re-elected. In earlier parts of the book Gates writes of the arduous but ultimately successful negotiations of the US SOFA team conducted under George Bush.
Thirdly, we have to examine why the Iraqi army seems incapable-at this point-in dealing with a mixed bag of Islamists, usually referred to as an Al Qaeda inspired organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but in actuality includes various disaffected Sunni tribes, criminals, and Former Regime Elements ( FRE), usually former officers of Saddam’s military or security apparatus s well as Ba’athist diehards. Using the al Qaeda appellation to describe the Iraqi rebels is simply a convenient and easy space saving term to make the enemy more explainable to the American public. It also fits conveniently in to the narrative al-Maliki uses to describe the enemy. In some respects we are talking about the same “deep state” elements that have confounded the “experts” early rosy predictions of the “Arab Spring.”
Fourthly, as I have written in this blog before, the Sunni of Iraq having controlled Iraq for centuries, have not come to terms with the fact that they no longer are in a position of power. With Arab Sunni money coming in from wealthy Sunnis all over the world, including Persian Gulf countries, they are flush with cash as well as tacit ( and some overt) from Turkey’s intelligence and security organizations.
Fifthly, just as the Sunni s have always possessed the reins of power in Iraq, whether under Arab Ottoman or British rule, the Shi’a were always the dispossessed, disenfranchised, particularly under Saddam’s despotic rule. As a result they have few leaders, and the ones they do have are demagogues, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, or tied into the Iranian web, such as Ammar Hakim. Both are incompetent boobs.
Few Shi’a rose to leadership positions in the military, and those that did were generally not in the combat arms. It was generally a Sunni-officered and Shi’a enlisted army. One can read back in history to the days of reconstruction after the War Between the States ( civil war for you Yankees) to visualize the problems. Suddenly American Blacks were released from servitude and expected to take their place in government, It was a period of chaos in the south which have ramifications until this day.
Sixthly, despite being a generally admired institution within Iraq, the Iraqi army has a very mixed record. In their conventional wars against the Israelis and the Iranians, their competence and effectiveness was at best mediocre. In the unconventional wars against the Kurds they were generally also ineffective. Those campaigns that brought some success such as operation Anfal or against the Assyrian civilians early in the 30’s were slash and burn operations , essentially the antithesis of the US “hearts and minds” philosophy. Inculcating a Western sense of “just war” mentality will be a decades long process.
Seventhly, despite having some 300000 men on the military rolls and 14 divisions, only one is an armored division. The rest being ordinary infantry and they are just beginning to receive artillery and more armored vehicles. In many respects they are only relatively better armed than the insurgents. In light infantry weapons the Islamists among the insurgents probably have better and newer weapons, bought with cash from the Gulf countries. Overall their training is probably less than many of the insurgents who have been fighting for years in Syria or Iraq. With the exception of al -Maliki’s special anti terrorist units they are just young ill-trained recruits with mostly inexperienced and incompetent leadership. There is also an inferiority complex among these mostly Shi’a recruits facing an enemy whose image has been built-up and burnished by Western and Arab media. For instance how many videos does one see of Syrian troops , compared to the number of videos showing the exploits of the Syrian insurgents? Moreover the Iraqi troops have had no urban combat training or experience, and going into bitterly hostile built-up city like Ramadi or Fallujah was hard enough for our well-trained US Marines.
Our training of the Iraqis was not particularly effective andf only got into full stride after 2006 and ended in less than 6 years. In the beginning the US unwisely employed a contractor, the Vinnell Corporation to train the Iraqis. Vinnell had been training Saudis for 30 years and obviously the idea was that an Arab is an Arab, but it became evident after a while that Iraqis and Saudis are not the same. Vinnell failed to do the impossible…weld together a “new Iraqi army” in a matter of months. The US army and USMC took over the mission but the few years we had for the job was woefully inadequate. After a period of time some Saddam army officers were brought back, lending a small degree of professionalism, but also returning some of the ineffective Saddamist military ethos.
Eighthly, it is a facet of Arab military history that the Arab has always done much better in an unconventional warfare role than conventional, something I have written on extensively in my article at the end of this entry. The Arab insurgent in Fallujah is mostly from the neighborhood. He lives with the people and is fighting on his home turf. On the other hand the mostly Shi’a villagers from the south or young recruits from Sadr city might as well be fighting in a foreign country.
Finally the latest news is that the US is “talking about” (this administration does a lot of talking) setting up training for the Iraqi army with US trainers in Jordan. If it actually happens this is a good start of what has to be a very long -term mission. Running a few cycles for a year or two is insufficient.
This training program will be accepted by the monarchy in Jordan because the king has his own problem with Islamists and does not want to see the Islamists gain strength. On the other hand he is the author of the “Shi’a arc” quote advancing the idea that the Sunni Arab world is being encircled by the Shi’a of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Certainly the Jordanian public will not be enthusiastic. The Palestinians in particular still consider Saddam Hussein an Arab Saladin. The Jordanian army has had a long association with the Saddam Iraqi army and supported it wholeheartedly during the Iran –Iraq war, and there is evidence they also supported Saddam on a low level during the wars against the US.
From the reports of our trainers who have worked with the Iraqis they are better soldier materiel than most Arabs and take to the military with greater enthusiasm. If the U.S. military sends the right sort of culturally adept trainers we will see positive results.
At this point our decision to destroy the Saddam regime and the deeply entrenched Ba’ath party has far more detractors than supporters but it will be many years before the real results of this war can be truthfully analyzed. For now we still have the opportunity and time to rectify some of the mistakes make in execution of the bold decision (and right one in my opinion) by President Bush to go to war.
See my article on why Arabs lose wars
For more on training Arab forces see