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Volunteers to the front

Birgit Svensson, Baghdad / dbJune 16, 2014

When ISIS overran the country, many Iraqi soldiers quit the military. Hopes are that volunteers can be motivated to join the Iraqi army, but it's a difficult undertaking.

Iraq soldiers firing artillery
Image: Reuters

The Iraqi government reports it is gaining the upper hand in the fight against Sunni extremist rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In an announcement aimed at improving the Iraqi troops' poor reputation, spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the army took control of the cities Tikrit and Samarra north of the capital Baghdad and killed 280 terrorists.

The country's armed forces have come under fire after many soldiers deserted, and the teeming city of Mosul in northern Iraq was practically left to the jihadists without a struggle. ISIS insurgents also captured the governor's residence in Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit in no time at all.

Stunned Iraqis wonder how entire regions, government buildings, TV stations and police headquarters can be flying black jihadist banners in the space of just a few days. Where are Iraq's security forces to confront these self-proclaimed holy warriors?

Coveted military jobs

The Iraqi army has more than one million soldiers, and if you add the police forces, Iraq has 1.5 million men and a smattering of women in the government's service. At a minimum of $1,000 per month, they have a good income, and the jobs are coveted. Almost every family in Baghdad has at least one member on the police force or in the army. In a society with high unemployment and insecure jobs, they are a financial pillar.

Nuri al-Maliki
Nuri al-Maliki hopes volunteers will join the security ForcesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Iraq's soldiers barely offered marauding ISIS insurgents any opposition at all. Eyewitnesses from Mosul and Tikrit report the soldiers took off their uniforms, put down their weapons, left their vehicles and went home, while others sped to Erbil and Dohuk in the autonomous Kurdish territories.

Ill-equipped troops

The US shelled out almost $25 billion to train the new Iraqi army after top US civilian administrator Paul Bremer disbanded all of Iraq's security forces following the invasion in the spring of 2003 and formed a new army.

However, as US forces prepared to leave the country eight years later, an internal Pentagon report stated Iraq's army still showed "insufficient standards." The border guards' equipment was deemed completely inadequate. And while special anti-terrorist units were set up, the defense department report said, most of the regular soldiers were poorly trained.

But by far the Iraqi army's greatest weakness is an inability to defend itself against enemies from outside the country, the Pentagon report said.

Air raid defenses or even an air force are practically non-existent. Border guards decry the lack of a proper technical infrastructure on the border: no explosives detectors, no night vision gear - not even enough binoculars. They find it difficult to ascertain whether an illegal pedestrian is a refugee or a suicide attacker.

Low morale

But the troops' low morale is even worse than the army's inadequate equipment and training.

soldiers and refugees in Iraq
Border guards complain about inadequate equipmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"I won't fight for Maliki," is a view increasingly uttered by soldiers over the past months.

Last year, after a public row between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, Kurdish soldiers left the Iraqi army in droves to join the Peshmerga armed Kurdish fighters.

The Sunni fighting spirit is minimal, too. "The troops are just being burned," observers say. The Shiite head of government never suffered Sunnis in higher positions. He even took on the role of defense and interior minister himself - a position that should have gone to a Sunni. Washington's intention of forming an army open to all sectors of society has been undone by Maliki's attitude.

That is about to change: motivated volunteers are being recruited to join the regular troops. The coming weeks and months will show whether Maliki's project pays off.