ISIL vs. Iraqi Army: Then and Now

For months now the ISIL has been residing inside the Anbar province of Iraq. Despite a number of false starts by the Iraqi security forces, and announced impending offensives to clear the area of the insurgents, very little has happened.

In fact the insurgents recently attacked Samarra, a Sunni populated city, but with one of the most sacred of all Shi’a Islamic sites. The shrine there holds the tomb of the 11th Imam Hassan al-Askari and it was from this shrine that the last Imam, the 12th, Al Mahdi, went into occultation. The  mainstream Shi’a  ( sometimes called twelvers) believe he is not dead but on earth waiting for the appropriate time to reappear.  This same shrine was partially blown up in 2006 that triggered the Sunni-Shi’a civil war.

The attack on Samarra's al-Askariya shrine set off violence between Sunnis and Shiites. Photo Courtesy of CNN

Samarra’s al-Askariya shrine in 2006 after the bombing. Photo Courtesy of CNN

There was a fear among the people of Baghdad that the Islamist terrorists would destroy the shrine and reignite the civil war. Apparently they did not penetrate that far into the city and have since been pushed out of the main parts of the city.


There is no doubt that the ISIL, which has no new strategy other than create problems and make it as difficult as possible for the Shi’a Iraqi government to rule, would like to restart the civil war.

The illusion of the Sunni “deep state” Saddamists and the allied Islamists, is that the  waging of these hit and run, terrorist tactics is their only chance to regain some semblance of power. Despite the prognostications  of some observers, and the hopes of the  Arab financiers who support the insurgency  this  is  very unlikely to happen.

In fact it must be kept in mind that insurgencies in the Middle East often outlive their usefulness and have no strategy. They become a business.  This was the story of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Once enthused by claims that their generation would “see the sea” an illusion to standing on the beaches of the Mediterranean and obliterating Israel, the 60’s and early 70s saw hundreds of raids or attempted raids into Israel as well as world wide terrorist acts.

In the end nothing was accomplished. The PLO splintered into numerous organizations supported by various Arab countries to further their  regime self -interest.  Moving forward into the present era  this appears to be happening to the insurgency in Iraq, it is with the various insurgent organizations in Iraq.

The acts of blowing up  Shi’a civilians has been going on for ten years, and yet some sort of life goes on, and rather than overturn the al-Maliki government as apparently some observers thought, it has enhanced his power. To some degree this illustrates the power of the “Inshallah” syndrome. If God wants me dead there is nothing I can nothing do to prevent it. This explains much of the lack of concern for rudimentary safety precautions taken. However, in a historical sense the use of terror to break the will of the people has never really worked anywhere.

One should remember the assessment made by the bombing survey team analyzing the psychological impact of the massive  WWII  bombing attacks on German cities, in many cases directed against civilians. It was an objective of the British command to break the will of the German people. These massive U.S. and British raids, made life miserable for the Germans, killed about 300,000  of them, injured over a million, and made over 7 million homeless, but as the Surveys after the war showed, it did not break the German determination to keep up the struggle, even though fewer believed in victory.

The other concept was that massive civilian casualties would bring about a revolt among the populace against the government. A famous British historian opined that if London could be bombed for 48 hours the people would rebel.  Actually for years London was hit by aerial bombing attacks, and if the popular picture of gritty Londoners smiling though it all may be a bit overdrawn, they were not turned against the government.

So returning to the main point, why does the ISIL continue to follow a strategy/tactic which will not bring success in the long run? As written above, terror is a business. The ISIL and similar organizations have backers, like corporation shareholders, who want to see something for their money.  Evolving from an insurgent organization to one expected to run a government in an area bereft of resources is a  tough enough task but also being able to hold their ground against conventional Iraqi forces, albeit inept today, but bound to improve, will prove, in my opinion, untenable.

In my previous post I mentioned some of the factors which have rendered the Iraqi army ineffective against the insurgents. Foremost was the Obama decision to depart before the job was done. The problem of the Status of Forces obstacle was  mostly a smokescreen to   justify a complete  withdrawal for domestic political reasons.

Secondly, the remaking of the army without their Saddamist officers and a departure of many of the good Shi’a officers has left the army without competent leadership.  The latter factor being more important that the former in that many Saddamist officers were equally incompetent. The corruption, nepotism, and tribalism that characterized s the army today has resulted in many good Shi’a officers leaving the army.

Thirdly, this is a conscript army and many have joined the army simply as a means of having a livelihood.  It should be remembered that after years of disaster against the Iranians, Saddam decreed that university students should be inducted into the army, with many going into the more elite Republican Guards. Having a more educated and professional army allowed the Iraqis to turn the tide of war.

The corruption, nepotism, and tribalism were also part of the Saddam army. So what makes the difference between the Al Maliki army and Saddam’s? As an Iraqi friend reminded me…two factors, fear and education of top commanders. Fear may not be the most recommended method  of leadership but it held together the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war.  Draconian punishment was prevalent in the Iraqi army, including top commanders, who were executed for battlefield failures. In documents of just one battalion picked  up off the battlefield after Gulf War I over 20 soldiers were indicated having been executed for desertion or treason.

Despite the less than stellar performance of the Iraqi Army against the Coalition, they had performed well enough against Kurdish and Shi’a militias. In addition to the fear factor, many of the top Saddam officers had the advantage of professional educations at Soviet or Western military schools, something the Al Maliki officers generally have not had.

One can assume that as time goes on the deadly environment in which Iraq exists, will force al Maliki, like Saddam, to turn to a more professional army.  Until that time, the Iraqi army wu ill be little more than a militia with uniforms.



About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
This entry was posted in Arab Military, Iraq, Islam, Middle East Politics, Terrorism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to ISIL vs. Iraqi Army: Then and Now

  1. Connie Piper says:

    Yes, Tex, to me it is so disheartening that after the billions we have spent in Iraq they are no better off. All the training in the world will not help them. They will always rely on us. Too many have had their lives stolen in that country with not a single thank you. The ISIL has conquered so much in such a short bit of time with hardly any assistance- at least not compared to the help we’ve given the Iraqi government. I thoroughly ENJOY all your articles, Tex…keep them coming! Connie P.

Leave a Reply