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Iraq’s army under friendly fire

Iraq’s army under friendly fire

Criticism against the dysfunctional Iraqi army is well deserved. But there maybe a hidden agenda behind it, writes Salah Nasrawi

Writing in the New York Times on 6 September 2007 former American governor of Iraq Paul Bremer described the army he ordered to build following the US invasion in 2003 as “the country’s most effective and trusted security force.”

“By contrast, the Baathist-era police force, which we did recall to duty, has proven unreliable and is mistrusted by the very Iraqi people it is supposed to protect” wrote Bremer who ordered to disband Saddam Hussein’s army and replace it with the new force.

“In fact the policy was carefully considered by top civilian and military members of the American government. And it was the right decision,” he concluded. When President Barak Obama decided to pull out US troops in 2011 one alibi he used to answer critics was that the Iraqi army is capable enough to fill the security vacuum.

The American assessment has routinely been challenged and experts have warned of fundamental problems with the new Iraqi army. Though the United States spent some $25 billion and several years training, the army has been fraught with corruption, inefficiency and lack of fighting skills. Its most serious problem remained sectarianism.

It took the near total collapse of the Iraqi army when the Islamic State terror group advanced into northern and western Iraq in June and captured huge chunks of land and arsenals of abandoned weapons for Washington to admit that the army it had created was nothing but a rag tag force.

In recent weeks, however, US officials started delivering their criticism to the Iraqi security forces publically. Mainstream US media have been awash with stories based on official leaks about the army’s incompetence and sectarianism, effectively ruling out the force from efforts to liberate areas taken by IS.

In a front-page report last week the Washington Post talked about “the larger decay across Iraq’s security forces and institutions.” It described them as a “deeply rooted phenomenon that undermines the country’s stability.”  “The force is also insufficient on its own to retake strategic cities such as Mosul,” wrote the paper.

Its main competitor, The New York Times, detailed “entrenched corruption” among top commanders who are involved in businesses such as selling soldiers provisions, liquor on the job or officer commissions. The paper noted that the pattern of corruption and patronage in the forces threatens to undermine a new American-led effort to drive out the IS extremists.

The Lose Angels Times, another leading US paper, joined the anti-Iraqi army chorus and in a report it concluded that the main factor behind the collapse of the army was its “rampant corruption.” It said army’s equipment and ammunition are sold by officers on the black market.

The US media blitz seems to echo similar criticism by leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni communities who are at loggerheads with the Shia-led centeral government which controls the security forces. Leaders of both communities are now pushing for dealing with the Americans away from Baghdad, including direct weapons delivery and training.

In a series of interviews last week Kurdish politician and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari lambasted rampant corruption and mismanagement in the army. In one interview with Reuters Zebari said “only the Sunni tribes are the ones who can deliver” in the war against IS. Also, Gen. Jamal Mohammad, chief-of-staff of the Kurdish forces, the Peshmeraga, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper last week Baghdad insistence of deliveries of weapons through its airport is delaying liberating territories seized by IS.

Sunni leaders were even more blunt and to the point. The main Sunni bloc in the parliament, the Iraqi National Forces, has appealed to Washington to send weapons and ground troops to help Sunni tribes in fight against

While frustration with post-Saddam era’s Iraqi security forces is justified, this sudden surge of US, Kurdish and Sunni criticism and complaints seem to be orchestrated to prove a point. The Iraqi government-controlled security forces are becoming a problem and the United States and its allies in the international coalition should deal directly with Kurdish and Sunni forces.

The roots of the Iraqi army’s problems lie with the US occupation which dismantled the Iraqi state and dissolved the army and built a political system along ethnic and sectarian lines. After the ouster of Saddam, Shia groups insisted that the army should be put under their control. Shia believed that ensuring security for the country’s reconstruction needs an army loyal to the central government in which they were a majority.

But during former Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s eight years tenure Iraq’s security forces became too sectarian due to his policies of exclusion and marginalization against Sunnis and staffing the army and police with corrupt cronies.

His successor Haider Al-Abadi faced the daunting task of fixing the security forces problem.

On Sunday, Al-Abadi disclosed that an investigation into corruption in the Iraqi army has revealed that there were 50,000 false names on its payroll. Known by Iraqis as “ghost soldiers”, because they do not exist while still receiving their salaries, the system has undermanned the security forces’ capabilities in facing security challenges.

Last month Al-Abadi ordered a major shakeup of the military by relieving 26 army officers of their commands and retiring 10 others for corruption and incompetence. He appointed 18 new commanders as part of efforts to reinforce the work of the military on the basis of professionalism and fighting graft in all its forms.”

Also, Al-Abadi is now trying to reform the ministry of interior and the vast police force it controls. On Monday he fired 24 senior officers, few days after removing the deputy minister who was accused of negligence and mismanagement. A plan for overhauling the force is also underway

But the question now how far can Al-Abadi go in reforming the army and police without sparking accusations that he is weakening the Shia tight grip on the security forces?

Iraqi Shia lawmakers and politicians have vehemently rejected the US-proposed mainly Sunni dominated national guard force to police the Sunni provinces. They also reject the idea of US training or supplying weapons to Sunni tribes without government approval and supervision.

Shia groups have also been resisting pressure to dispose off with the Iranian-backed Shia militias which are playing a key role in the war against IS’s by fighting alongside the security forces. In addition, thousands of Shia have volunteered since the IS made its advances in June. On Sunday, Al-Abadi ordered to pay salaries for some 21,000 Shia volunteers which the government now plans to accommodate in the national guard.

But as criticism of the army and praise to Al-Abadi’s reforms are making headlines, other aspects of the story have began unfolding.

On Monday, the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper revealed that Washington has informed a Sunni delegation that it will start training some 100,000 Sunni fighters to combat IS. The paper quoted members of the delegation which includes politicians, tribal chieftains and former insurgents that the force will also police the Sunni areas after IS’s expulsion. The delegates told Al-Hayat that the programme will be carried out without Baghdad’s consent.

If it could some how be implemented, this means Washington is creating a Sunni armed force in spite of the centeral government. With the Kurdish Peshmergas already operating independently from Baghdad, Iraqi will have three armies on the ground with the all implications and the consequences it could have in a nation enmeshed in a civil war.

The Iranians, meanwhile, seem to have their own vision, or even plans, for Iraq’s security forces. On 27 November Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a surprising statement which went largely unnoticed. “The ideology of the Basij has reached Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and, God willing, it will reach Jerusalem soon,” he said referring to Iran’s powerful paramilitary force which works as an auxiliary force engaged in security activities.

On 30 November the Lebanese National News Agency quoted leader of Hezbollah Shia party Hassan Nassrullah as warning of plans to “create a Sunni region in Iraq” which he said with parts of Syrian territories under Sunni control would together be annexed to Jordan. “This would be the alternative Palestinian state,” he was quoted as telling Al-Maliki who was in a visit to Lebanon.

As both Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah continue to have stakes in giving a strong political and military support to Iraqi Shia, there is much to read into Khamenei’s and Nassrullah’s apocalyptic statements and the Baghdad government’s rejection of an autonomous Iraqi Sunni force.

The mere process of having three armed forces built on ethno-sectarian lines will effectively mean Iraq is divided to three different entities. With Syria unraveling, the much talked about scenario of combining the Sunni heartland in both Iraq and Syria in a larger Sunni country could become a reality.

And that is a nightmare for Shia in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who will be separated by the new Sunnistan.

This article appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly Dec. 4, 2014