Every article one reads on the abject failure of the Iraqi army starts with the premise that the disbandment of the Iraqi army by the Bush administration is the major reason for the failure of the present Iraqi army. This premise has become deeply rooted in the conventional thinking on the post-war Iraq. It is never questioned…. like so many other fundamental analyses of the war and the problems of the post war era.
Lets examine this supposition more closely. First of all, as the late and great Arab expert with the State Department, Hume Horan, wrote some years ago, Bremer did not disband the Iraqi army, It disbanded itself. I was there in November 2003 and that was the situation. Of course the argument goes that it could have been recalled and the troops would have flocked back to their units. The lack of the recall left the mostly Sunni officers “embittered.” No doubt it did but what about the enlisted men, of which most were Shi’a and some Kurds? How many would have returned to the draconian brutal environment of the equally corrupt Saddam army? It was an army held together by fear. In captured documents from the first Gulf war in some battalions of 200-300 men over 20 soldiers had been executed for desertion or some other infraction of Saddam’s rules.
The “Love palace” of Uday. Saddam’s son, Just one example opf the endemic corruption under Saddam
How many would have returned? We will never know but the “experts” who created a cottage industry mindlessly repeating the mantras assume they would have.. From just the small sample of those I know, many if not most, would not have returned. The new Iraqi army would remain an army of Sunni officers, the senior commanders closely tied to the virus called the Ba’ath party, which was deeply embedded in the Iraqi society, How long would this army of Sunni officered army, indoctrinated to believe the Sunnis rule by something akin to divine right, allowed an elected Shi’a government to exist? Certainly not longer than the hasty withdrawal of the American forces.
The assumption one reads in these articles is that the Saddam army was a professional army, one that would have stabilized the country, In fact the Saddam army was as corrupt as the present one, but far more brutal. The Iraqi army has had a history of mediocre performance against Iraqi enemies and brutality toward its own citizens, especially the minorities, like the Kurds and the Christian Assyrians. One should read the best books on the Ba’ath party and living under Saddam, one written by Joseph Sassoon ( Saddam Hussein;s Ba’ath Party and Dina Rizk Khoury ( Iraq in Wartime). The most insightful of all the books on Saddam’s Iraq is of course the Republic of Fear by Kenaan Makiya. Because of the money spread around the Western media and academic world by the Saddam regime, the book was initially met with skepticism.
Author atop Iranian helmets that adorn the Saddam Hussein Memorial to himself
None of what follows is a criticism of the soldierly qualities of the Iraqi individual, who like every other nationality in the world, is only as good as their leadership. In fact the Iraqi officer corps has failed the Iraqi people time and time again.
In the 1967 war against Israel, the Iraqi units sat immobile in the narrow defiles of the Irbid heights overlooking the Jordan valley and were decimated by the Israel air force,
In the 1970, I was the military attaché in Jordan and as the Iraqi Army withdrew from Jordan during the PLO-Jordanian Army conflict, I followed their withdrawal to make sure it was happening. It was easy to follow the withdrawal because it was marked by broken down vehicles all along the withdrawal route.
In 1974 I was part of a 1973 war DOD “fact finding” mission. At the briefing given by the Jordanian commander of the 40th armored brigade, he denigrated the performance of the Iraqis. He faulted their incompetent leadership and a fear of working too closely with their supposed Arab brothers, the Jordanians and Syrians. The Israelis involved in the Golan Heights fight were much more impressed with the Syrians. The Iraqis did make an impressive 800 mile road march with two divisions from Iraq to the Golan Heights but once in battle they were not effective except to tie down Israeli forces.
The 1980-1988 Iraq -Iran war illuminated even more dramatically the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi army leadership. Facing an Iranian army that had also dissolved itself following the fall of the Shah with only a fraction of the heavy equipment possessed by Iraqis , the Iranians fought the Iraqi army to a standstill.
Then of course the two wars against the American led coalition forces should be considered. First following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a feat one can liken to a German invasion of Monaco, accompanied by plunder and systemic brutality, the Iraqi forces fled with truckloads of loot back to Iraq. Then the total collapse of the Iraqi army in 2003 completes most of the picture. Finally it should be remembered that after decades of off and on war against the Kurds they have been unable to subdue them, despite using chemical weapons and extermination policies.
I reiterate none of this reflects badly on the individual Iraqi soldier, a toughened individual, inured to privation and ill-treatment but on the appalling ineffectiveness of the Iraqi army officer corps under the nationalists and the Ba’ath.
The Ba’ath party under Saddam had permeated the fabric of Iraqi society and particularly the army, It was, as Saddam liked to say, “an ideological army” with political commissars, unit monitors, counterintelligence agents always omnipresent, Chopping off the heads of a few top Ba’ath officers, as the critics of the Bush administration have advocated ad nauseum, would be of doubtful value.
Iraqis in Baghdad
So in summary, the idea that the Iraqi army was a professional and competent force capable of bringing stability to Iraq is a doubtful proposition at best. President Obama recently stated, while as usual, criticizing the invasion of Iraq as a mistake, admitted it “allowed the Iraqis to take back their country.” That would not have happened had the Iraqi army been left essentially intact after the 2003 war.
Moreover the idea that a Saddam lite army would have prevented the emergence of an Islamic State makes no sense. It arose in Syria, not Iraq, composed in part of former Syrian Sunni army officers. The Sunnis of Iraq have largely welcomed or remained neutral as the ISIL swarmed over Anbar province. Indeedpart of the failure of the new Iraqi army against the ISIL has been the duplicitous actions of the Sunni officers who simply deserted their commands. So as I have argued with a few others, a reality gradually gaining acceptance is that the “Islamic State” is mostly a continuation of the Sunni Arab nationalist and exclusivist movement with Ba’athist accent and a strong Islamist facade to attract recruits to whom the Arab nationalist movement is no longer appealing, particularly if they are non Arab.