The Iraqi Army: the Wild Card

izwith barham salih Kurd leader

Me with Barham Salih in 2004, now the president of Iraq

As the Iraqi president continues to discuss with political blocs names of candidates to fill in the post of Prime Minister, the pressure from demonstrators to select an independent figure grows. So far the speculation in the media suggests the head of Iraq’s national intelligence Mustafa Al-Kazimi, and former communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi have emerged as likely most candidates, but as it appears there is a continuing impasse in selection of a Prime Minister, the environment for a military leader to assume control, by appointment or coup grows.


The Iraqi people see the army as the one institution of which they could be proud, even though the army has been involved in a number of brutal suppressions of domestic discontent, and has demonstrated a rather mediocre performance against the Israelis. They have always venerated the Iraq army from the time of its founding under the British. However, due to its earlier involvement in coups, especially the bloody one of 1958, and Iraqi politics, Saddam Hussein, who created the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard to balance the regular army, did not trust it. From then until now the regular army has not been deeply involved in the national politics and has not been an actor in the political chaos enveloping the nation since 2003.


Iraqi Shi’a militia

The collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 depicted it as a hapless fighting organization and it became an object of ridicule, as well as the American training that preceded the collapse. The reality of the situation was that when the ill-considered withdrawal of American trainers from Iraq in 2011, Iraqi politicians reshaped the army to configure to political considerations and many professional officers left the army. It quickly evolved into a corrupt institution maintained for political and financial reasons by the Shi’a politicians. Its performance in 2014 was an example of its woeful effectiveness.  However with the return of American trainers in 2014, a slow improvement began and a degree of professionalism returned. In the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) several units of the Iraqi army demonstrated combat mettle and impressive effectiveness. One the best is the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), which, is now under the direct control of the Iraqi Prime Minister. Another is the 9th Mechanized division which has most of the best armor in the Iraqi army. These two units carried the fight to the ISIS.  The CTS organization, which is the headquarters of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) Forces, also known as the Golden Division, lost a large number of their personnel as they performed as shock troops ferreting the ISIS terrorists out the city of Mosul.  Fighting in a traditional Arab city such as Mosul is one of the difficult operations one can attempt and the ISOF took many casualties doing it.

Iraqi officers

Iraqi army officer cadets


The ISOF been rebuilt to some extent but its present capabilities are probably not up to pre-2014 standards, and some of the former prime minister Al-Maliki’s induced corruption has crept in, but it is still a good unit. The former commander of this unit, Lt. General Abdul-Wahhab Al Saadi became a popular figure and has been lionized by many of the current Iraqi protestors who are frustrated by the corruption and inept governing regime. Because of his popularity he was, in typical Arab style, pulled out of his command over troops and relegated to a desk job, which he rejected and preferred to retire. This is a symptom of one of the main problems affecting all Arab armies, the politicization of the officer corps. Advancement is the reward for mediocrity.

To an extent , the effort to establish a quota system to create the army with the “face of Iraqi diversity,“ requiring the military to represent general proportion of the sectarian groups, i.e., Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds,, has been a drawback, as it requires the absorption of many recruits of lower standards just to meet the quota system. However, on the other hand, because of their historical and traditional role, composing the majority of the officer corps, the return of the Sunni officers has re-energized the quest for professionalism. While the quota is an obviously important political measure to forge a sense of Iraqi solidarity, it, to some observers in Iraq believe it does not enhance the quality of the army. I would suggest suggest, however, that it has increased the professionalism of the officer corps, with a greater loyalty to the nation rather that political blocs.

Iraqi training army 2

American training of Iraqi army

Another factor of importance is that the regular army has had far more exposure to American training and culture and many are pro-American in attitude, particular the officers at a junior and middle level. This sets them at odds with the Iranian supported Shi’a militias, many basically paid and directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to further Iranian interests. The innate rivalry to be expected between the Shi’a militias and regular army has grown to animosity down to the junior officer rank, even among the Shi’a officers.

So how does this play out?

The main point is this; It only takes a few units to effect a coup d’ etat. Most military coups in the Middle East have been carried out with very few units. There are three main criteria; one is that is that be a cohesive unit in which the officers are loyal to their commander, and the troops obey their officers. The troops need not be particularly in sync with the political motivations of their officers and commander.  Secondly the unit must be near the capitol to seize the primary means of communications and governing institutions to move quickly and unobtrusively into the governing center. Thirdly the coup must be done with lighting speed and firm direction. The loss of will on the part of the Turkish plotters in the 2016 attempted overthrow of Erdogan is one example of a loss of will. The book to read on this is  the classic  Coup d’ Etat: A Practical Handbook. Revised Edition. by Edward Luttwak.

There are several aspects of Iraq that make a coup d’ etat easier. Iraq, like most Arab counties is a mostly an urban population and is centralized around three main cities of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.   For generations it has been governed by an authoritarian highly centralized regime. All power emanates from Baghdad. Take Baghdad and the rest of the country will follow, perhaps not immediately, but inevitably.

Iraq has been soaked in blood for decades. The people are tired of constant tension, violence, wars, and pervasive corruption.  The present situation presents a picture of a total breakdown of authority and order.  The old Arab saying, which could be applied anywhere in the world, ” a thousand days of tyranny is better than one day of chaos.” In Iraq, some (perhaps quite a few) yearn for the dictatorial Saddam regime and all wish for a strong leader to appear.  The mishmash of various Shi’a armed political organizations, all vying for power, destroying Iraq in the process, has worn the luster off their earlier heroic stance against the depredations of the ISIS, following the collapse of the Army in 2014.

An ambitious Iraqi general with a degree of charisma, a strong will, and from a reputable family,  with a loyal unit of perhaps no more than a reinforced brigade  with heavy weaponry could overpower the lightly armed militia groups. These groups are not unified, do not have uniform direction, and lack the religious fervor they possessed against the Sunni ISIS. Their leaders are mostly criminal type thugs and do not engender respect among the regular army officers. In a head to head confrontation, the militia groups could not prevail against armor and artillery. As Hafez Assad did against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, using artillery units manned by mostly Sunni soldiers, he pummeled the city until the Muslim Brotherhood was broken.  The Iraqi unit could do the same against the militia stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad.  The Shi’a militias would splinter as the undisciplined militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) remember their first priority is their families and leave the battlefield to save them. One must remember that in the Middle East the “hearts and minds” philosophies are not only disregarded, but also actually seen as weakness.

wolf brigade

Iraqi soldiers celebrate capture of Mosul

The conventional wisdom that the mostly Shi’a soldiers of the army would not fire on their fellow coreligionists, Shi’a militia members, is simply not viable. As has been shown so many times in recent era, the quest for power, or survival, always trumps religious considerations, even in the Islamic world. In the Shi’a revolt against the Saddam regime following the Gulf war in 1991, many Shi’a tribes not only failed to support the rebellion but also actively fought against it. In the American liberating invasion, the hoped for Shi’a collaboration did not materialize and later they became the prime opponents of the American efforts to fashion some sort of a viable democratic government.

As the military attaché in Jordan during the Palestinian- Jordanian civil war (some say Jordanian Arab Army versus the Palestinian Liberation Organization) I watched the resentment of the ordinary Jordanian soldiers build day after day as the PLO Fedayeen drove around in their Toyotas, harassing people, showing off their tiger uniforms , flirting  with young women,  and basically indicating they were in charge. The same is happening in Iraq. The militia will continue to play the hero with all the publicity and Western “experts” lauding their prowess, or opining that we must deal with them. This “prowess” was primarily in terms of propaganda in the dark days against the ISIS, as they swarmed into the streets of Baghdad, giving residents a feeling of security as the routed Iraqi army fled south from Mosul. However in the years of the tortuous march up country, reclaiming Iraq against the ISIS, it was the Army and the CTS that did most of the fighting. The militias followed as a sort of mop up force.

Since the regular army shows some attachment to the American military and the Shi’a militia forces are in the pocket of the Iranians, this coup would have international repercussions, leading some to forecast the destruction of the army. I disagree. Iran would not venture to put conventional troops into Iraq and the probable entrance of more IRGC forces would only lead to greater embarrassment for Iran by turning the coup into a classic Arab- Persian struggle. Of course this assessment can only be valid if the United States continues to show some backbone in the continuing confrontation. The Iranians must remain fearful of strong American intervention.

Is there a charismatic power hungry military Army commander (or perhaps an idealist) who can fill the role of the “man on horseback?” I do not know, but my background of Middle East experience suggests there is one, and as the turmoil in Iraq continues, public entreaties and pressure for someone to clean up the mess will create the right environment for the man, even if he, like Mohammed Naguib of Egypt, will only be temporary until an Iraqi Nasser emerges.   In the meantime the Iraqi army tanks and artillery remain in cantonments, waiting for the orders.





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.
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1 Response to The Iraqi Army: the Wild Card

  1. Connie Marie Moralez-Piper says:

    I loved reading this, dear Tex and couldn’t help thinking that what we’re teaching the Iraqi army now …well…I just think one day when things go wrong again (for whatever reason) they’ll end up turning on us again and they’ll be that much more deadly since we’re teaching them how to be better fighters. Sadly, I think it’s a matter of time til they turn on us. They have no sense of loyalty (just my opinion for whatever it’s worth. I mean as long as we’re paying them and propping them up and as long as we’re there constantly monitoring every thing they do, decade after decade, they do ok, then the moment we leave – well they fall apart. I hope saudi arabia and other arab countries are pitiching in somehow with this effort to keep some kind of stability there. GREAT ARTICLE !!

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