The Iraqi army has suffered significant defeats in the fight against "Islamic State." And it has nothing to do with its equipment or the training of its soldiers. The reasons are mainly political.
Iraqi troops are closing in from three sides on the city of Ramadi. That's at least according to reports in the international press agencies from the Shiite militias which are working with the national army to take back the city that fell to "Islamic State" in mid-May.
Taking Ramadi back would be a military triumph – one that the Iraqi army sorely needs. The fall of Fallujah to "IS" at the end of 2013 was hugely demoralizing, and the fall of Ramadi is the latest in a string of humiliating defeats. The Iraqi army showed "no will to fight," according to US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
"They vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight. I think most of us have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight IS and defend themselves."
In response, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that Carter's information was wrong. In an interview with the BBC, he said that the army would win back the city "in a matter of days." But the chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Secuity Committee, Hami al-Zamili, was clearly more perturbed. He said that the Americans are trying to steer attention away from their own mistakes by placing the blame on the army. In his view, the Americans failed to provide the Iraqis with good equipment, weapons and air support. In recent years, the United States has invested around $20 billion in building up the Iraqi army.
Soldiers don't see a future
Will the army be able to win back Ramadi? It could be difficult, said Salih al-Mutlak, Abadi's deputy. He said that the defeat in Ramadi was difficult to explain. "We don't know why this army, which has been trained by the Americans for years, and was thought to be one of the best in the world, retreated from Ramadi in this way," he said.
However, he did allude to an explanation for the defeat. "If soldiers don't see a future for themselves in Iraq, then they won't fight IS in the way that we would want. There will be several combat operations, but what we want to see is a real effort, like we experienced a few years ago. Back then, the soldiers fought because they saw a future for themselves in their country."
According to al-Mutlak, many Sunni soldiers no longer believe in the state of Iraq. Over the years, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suppressed the Sunnis and tried to keep them as far as possible from the corridors of power. At the start of 2014 when Iraqi forces moved against al Qaeda and "IS" in the mainly Sunni province of Anbar, the civilian population suffered greatly. The military suspected them of sympathizing with or even supporting the jihadists, and responded harshly. As a consequence, many Sunnis became radicalized.
Questionable personnel politics
Al-Maliki often appointed unqualified people to leading positions in the army; the main criteria was whether or not they were loyal to him. In this way, many members of Shiite militias gained a foothold in the army. Al-Maliki's successor, al-Abadi, saw the political risks inherent in such personnel decisions. Soon after he assumed power, he removed around 40 commanders from their posts.
But he hasn't been able to completely restore trust in Iraq's armed forces. "Unfortunately, the al-Maliki government created such opposition that the army lost popular support. And there are not enough soldiers who are willing to risk their lives," Stephen Zunes, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco, told the US think tank Global Security. As a result of these political decisions, the Iraqi army has to deal with a massive gap in personnel. In 2009, it employed 210,000 men; now, there are just 48,000 soldiers in its ranks. Many simply deserted – partly for political reasons, and partly because it had been a long time since they received any pay.
Militias undermining the state
That has had fatal consequences. In order to fight IS, the Iraqi army is dependent on cooperation with Shiite militias, such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization. International human rights organizations accuse the commanders of these groups of terrorizing the Sunni civilian population during battles against "IS" last year. In addition, many Sunnis now fear that (Shiite) Iran could expand its influence on politics in Baghdad.
Now, the Iraqi government is relying again on the militias. From a military standpoint, it has no other option in the wake of the sobering experiences of recent months.
At the same time, analysts see the decision as a politically devastating signal. Protecting the state is the sole task of the military, wrote political scientist Afzal Ashraf on Al Jazeera's website. "But militias are loyal mainly to their own commander. Every success that these militias gain in Ramadi will only serve to further weaken the government and deepen the already dangerously wide religious division in the country." The soldiers know this, too, and it is doing nothing to strengthen their will to fight.