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For much of the summer, the soldiers of the 30th battalion of the 1st brigade of the Iraqi Army’s 8th division waited for the enemy. Their mission was to protect vital roads in Anbar province linking Baghdad to the highway to Jordan from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis.
But their remote desert base, on a road between the Isis-held cities of Saqlawiya and Fallujah, had already been over-run in the early days of the insurgency. The overwhelmingly Shia soldiers, mostly from southern Diwaniyah province, had repeatedly warned division headquarters 20km down the road that they lacked the supplies, weapons and local support necessary to mount a defence.
When Isis returned at noon on September 21 after days of mortar shelling, the soldiers could barely hold on for 90 minutes against a three-pronged barrage that included suicide bombers and truck-mounted guns. After pleas for back-up or air support proved futile, the soldiers scattered into the desert, abandoning their vehicles in a desperate flight through Isis-controlled territory.
“At the moment they arrived I had nothing in my mind except to fire at them because they were so close,” says Sergeant Hassan Razzaq, one of the men who escaped the rout at Saqlawiya, where at least 150 soldiers were killed and perhaps 50 more captured. “I was holding an M-16 with about 90 rounds. We started shooting them. But our ammunition began to run low and I told my soldiers to start the retreat.”
A race against time
The Saqlawiya debacle, in which an experienced army unit was once again quickly overcome by Isis, rattled Iraqi political and security officials and western strategists. Both Iraqi and western officials have struggled to formulate an effective strategy to push back against Isis after the group seized control of much of northwestern Iraq in a lightning offensive in June.
Haider Abadi, the prime minister, acknowledged a “total collapse” of the armed forces and the need to rebuild security institutions. Options include building a National Guard service, perhaps answerable to each of the country’s 18 provincial governors. There is talk, too, of transforming the mostly Shia volunteers, who have heeded the call of their religious leaders to join military support units, into a parallel branch of the military in what has been described as an emulation of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. Some units have already begun three-months retraining programmes.
“The previous training was not more than 45 days and the circumstances were not very good,” says Gen Qassem Atta, head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service and spokesman for the armed forces. “I believe that in six months we will start to see a turnround. We are now taking back some cities and villages step by step.”
But most Iraqi security officials, political leaders and analysts acknowledge they face a race against time. Iraq must reform, rehabilitate, rearm and reinvent its military before Isis strengthens its hold over its self-declared caliphate or state. At the same time the Iraqi security forces are also expected to defend civilians from car bombs and militia death squads and conduct offensive operations against Isis.
“We cannot fight and rebuild at the same time,” says Jawad Bolani, Iraq’s interior minister from 2006-10. “We need time to reform our institutions. It’s very important to have the international support. You cannot build under the pressure of terrorism.”
The campaign of air strikes launched by the US and some of its allies in September is designed to retard Isis’ progress and give breathing space to the military to reclaim territory. Washington hopes in the process to stiffen the resolve of the armed forces and keep its own ground forces out of the conflict zone.
Nikolay Mladenov, the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, says: “They need to restructure their armed forces. They need to do it quickly. They need a lot of support for that. But they also need to come up with an élan of the Iraqi armed forces. What are they fighting for?”
The summer of hell at Saqlawiya illustrates the challenge facing the US-led strategy to contain and destroy Isis without deploying ground forces to support Iraqi troops. Experts estimate that half of Iraq’s 56 brigade units need to be overhauled. Pentagon assessments suggest it will take two to three years to reconstitute Iraq’s security forces.
“We have to do it right, not fast,” Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress. “They have to have military leaders that bind them together . . . a political structure into which they can hook, and therefore be responsive to. And that’s going to take some time.”
But three years is guesswork. Iraq’s military, degraded by 35 years of near continuous war, disbanded 11 years ago by the US and victim to constant political turmoil, could take far longer to turn into an effective force that can take on Isis. That would commit the US and its partners to a far longer engagement.
The longer it takes, the more time Isis will have to amass wealth and lure more recruits as it hardens Iraq’s de facto partition into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish cantons. It will also expand its hold over parts of Syria and menace Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf.
“How long will it take to create abilities to defend, particularly outside of Shia areas?” asks Anthony Cordesman, a former adviser to the US Senate Armed Services committee, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “How soon can you get various Iraqi forces to support each other? How long is it going to take to reconstitute the ministry of defence and interior? We don’t know.”
A culture of incompetence
The chaotic events at Saqlawiya suggest that more than three months after the fall of Mosul to Isis, Iraq’s armed forces have yet to change a culture that yields repeated battlefield failures. The 30th battalion had already been routed once by Isis this summer, in a 24-hour battle that began June 13 and cost the unit four soldiers after their calls for air support were denied by division headquarters. “Their answer was, ‘You take care of yourselves’,” says Mr Razzaq, 38, who joined the army 10 years ago.
The Iraqi armed forces are rigidly structured and critics say officers fail to learn from mistakes or identify problems before they become insurmountable. Incompetence and corruption permeate the leadership while abysmal morale and poor discipline pervade the ranks. In a region where criticising the military is tantamount to treason, these issues have yet to be addressed.
“So far, some bad generals have been sent into retirement,” says Mowafaq al-Rubayie, Iraq’s former national security adviser. “But what we need is a radical revamping of the security forces.”
In June, the 30th battalion soldiers fled in their Humvees to a larger base. Instead of being praised for saving themselves, their wounded and their kit, or even debriefed for intelligence, they were branded deserters and punished. The men were outraged. “We made a lot of sacrifices and suffered heavy losses,” says Mr Razzaq. “They were attacking us from two sides in two waves, with suicide bombers.”
Under pressure from their commanders, the men agreed to return to Saqlawiya, which had been abandoned by Isis, which regards bases in Iraq as easy targets in the desert.
Some officials have begun to question the wisdom of posting troops in small numbers across remote bases. “Units aren’t necessary in certain parts of Iraq,” says Mr Bolani, among those on the shortlist to be the next interior minister. “We need to prioritise. When you distribute them in small numbers in this large an area, the units will be weak. Iraqi security forces should depend on local security forces in the area.”
But the armed forces in Sunni areas have little choice but to rely heavily on Shia-dominated units and militias. Years of chauvinist Shia rule in Baghdad and Isis threats have ended local Sunni collaboration with Baghdad.
“Daish is a network and we have to fight Daish as a network,” says Mr Rubayie, using the Arabic acronym for Isis. “The enemy was there in Saqlawiya. We need thousands of Sunni with long beards and long robes infiltrating the city and sabotaging Daish.”
A disaster repeated
When Isis returned to Saqlawiya, they employed the same tactics they had used three months earlier. After days of mortar shelling, they struck with suicide bombers followed by waves of attacks by truck-mounted guns. Snipers took shots from the desert. When the soldiers called for back-up, they were accused of exaggerating the threat.
Sgt Sajad Jabbar, 47, was in the base’s makeshift operations room when the fighting began. He and another soldier held out for nearly two hours but fled after fire from a Russian DShK heavy machinegun shredded its flimsy walls. They found their way to another building where they met dozens of officers and soldiers also planning to escape. A colonel with a pair of night-vision goggles led them through an obstacle course of abandoned houses, canals and Euphrates river tributaries past Isis positions over the next 24 hours.
When they arrived at division headquarters they found the soldiers in panic. “They were afraid that they’d also be over-run by Isis,” says Mr Jabbar. Mr Razzaq, who arrived at another base near Tareq, said he was spat upon as a traitor and denied food.
“Saqliwiya was a disaster,” says Ibrahim Bahr-Uloum, an Iraqi MP. “Iraq’s military forces have not been organised in a way to lead the fight. There is a lack of intelligence, logistics and local support.”
An unwinnable war
Both Mr Jabbar and Mr Razzaq have begun to press political leaders publicly for answers about missing comrades, failures in communication and the lack of support. With Isis continuing to advance, there is growing reluctance among the Shia majority to sacrifice more fighters to the campaign.
“I want my son back, whether he’s dead or alive,” says 49-year-old Kheir Kadhem Hamza, mother of Mehdi Saleh Abdel Kadhem, 19, who went missing in Tikrit. She and other mothers of missing soldiers in Diwaniyah have set up a protest camp outside the offices of parliament members.
“Why are all these sons and young boys killed just like that?” she says. “If I could, I would drink the blood of the division commander.”
While Mr Jabbar says he’ll return to base after leave, Mr Razzaq says he has not decided whether he will ever go back. He does not think the war is winnable. “Our generals, our ministry of defence and our officers don’t give us the logistical support and weapons we need to win,” he says. “In the area where we are fighting, the people don’t want us there. Why should I go and get killed defending an area where the people support the enemy?”
National Guard: The rise of the Shia-dominated popular surge
Iraqi authorities are discussing the creation of a branch of the military called the National Guard, as spelt out in the official programme of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government.
“The idea is to build a force to be back up to the army,” says Gen Qassem Atta, head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. “The responsibility is to secure the cities and liberate the army to work outside cities.”
But there is deep disagreement among Iraqis over the composition and chain of command of the units.
Iraqi political leaders are debating whether the force would fall under national or provincial command. Some regard provincial forces as a formula for easing sectarian tensions.
“A National Guard for each province is the first step to giving the right of the people to protect their own people,” says Ibrahim Bahr-Uloum, an independent Shia member of parliament.
Others see it as a path towards the eventual break-up of the country.
“The leadership of the armed forces should be under one command, otherwise there is the danger of the country splitting,” says Akeel al-Toriehi, the governor of Karbala province.
As a counterweight to the Sunni insurgency, Iraqi authorities in June started organising citizen forces in what was called a “popular surge”. They serve as an ideologically motivated, mostly Shia, force that Isis may not have predicted.
Iraqi officials are now discussing folding the surge forces into the National Guard.
To balance the sectarian make-up of the group, Sunni tribal fighters would also be incorporated into the force.
But there is scant evidence of such volunteer forces gelling in Sunni areas, especially Anbar province, although Sunni politicians have warmed to the idea.