Iraqi army struggles in battle against Islamist fighters in Anbar province


Iraqi security forces members enter a compound during clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda splinter group, in Ramadi on Feb. 16. (Stringer/Iraq/Reuters)

The United States is shipping arms to Iraq to help its army fight a Sunni Islamist insurgency in Anbar province. But some Iraqi soldiers argue that basic planning and supplies are just as sorely needed.

Lt. Col. Ihab Hashem, a deputy army commander based at the 8th Division headquarters in this southern city, recounted a series of what he said were poorly planned and executed missions in Anbar. There, the government is struggling to oust militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda splinter group that has proved a formidable foe.

Hashem described one mission in early January in the Anbar capital of Ramadi, where the army is trying to crush pockets of insurgency, as a “mess.” The aim was to reach a bridge at the end of Street 60, a notorious stronghold for militants and tribesmen who seized the city in January. Troops from four divisions entered after sunset, he said, although only a few had night-vision goggles and the pre-mission briefing was weak.

“There were no maps, there were no details,” he said in an interview last month while on leave, recovering from an injury. The convoy lost eight Humvees after coming under fire and hitting a roadside bomb, he said, and at least one soldier was killed.

“We reached the bridge, but it was a disaster,” he said, describing the purpose of the mission as “just to be there.”

That operation was one of several ill-fated missions that have characterized Iraq’s battle against ISIS in Anbar and underscored the weakness of security forces that the United States spent more than $20 billion to train and equip, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In December, more than a dozen soldiers, including a division commander and several high-ranking officers, were killed in an ambush as they attempted to clear an ISIS training camp. That incident prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take a more assertive stance in Anbar, including a crackdown on Sunni demonstrators who were protesting against his Shiite-led government.

In another high-profile incident, four special forces soldiers were executed in late January after being captured by Islamist insurgents, who broadcast a video of their deaths on the Internet.

Nouraddin Ismail al-Jowari, 22, was one of those killed. His relatives, from the run-down district of Zafaraniyah in southern Baghdad, have attempted to piece together the story of his last hours from colleagues.

The relatives said they were told by other soldiers that Jowari’s team was left alone by the rest of their convoy after it was struck by a roadside bomb in a hostile village.

“Confusion was the master of the situation,” said his brother, Mouyad, 32. He said another Humvee from the convoy was later sent back to find the team, but the men were already gone.

‘What they need is training’

As the fight in Anbar has escalated, Washington has responded to pleas from the Iraqi government by stepping up deliveries of light arms, Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to Baghdad. Iraq has also turned to its ally Iran for military support. Iran has signed a deal to sell Iraq ammunition and weapons worth $195 million, Reuters reported on Monday, citing leaked documents. The State Department has said it is seeking clarification on the deal, which would breach U.N. sanctions on Iran.

But some observers say weapons should not be the top priority.

“I can’t believe that after 10 years, the U.S. hasn’t given enough in small arms to arm the Iraqi armed forces twice over,” said a former U.S. senior adviser to the Iraqi armed forces, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive topic. “What they need is training and intelligence.”

American training of Iraqi forces stopped when the U.S. military withdrew in 2011, but discussions are underway to revive it.

Ali Moussawi, an Iraqi government spokesman, said that the conflict in Anbar has helped to clarify the “weaknesses and strengths” of the country’s armed forces and that army commanders had highlighted a need for better counterterrorism training. The United States, Iraq and Jordan have said that they are considering training for Iraqi forces by about 1,500 U.S. troops based in Jordan.

In interviews, soldiers also said local intelligence remains a problem. The United States shares phone intercepts and satellite imagery with Iraq, but Hashem said it often feels as if troops are working in the dark.

For his first 10 days in Anbar, he said, the soldiers he commands used a road into Ramadi that passed through the village of Bou Faraj, controlled by anti-government tribesmen. Once, after a light military vehicle carrying weapons was shot up and had to be retrieved, it took one of Hashem’s convoys nine hours to cross the stretch of a few miles. Four soldiers were injured and one was killed, he said.

Local police then told him that there was another, secured route that bypassed the village.

“I crossed that road three times under fire . . . many, many units were crossing there,” he said.

Said Abu Hussein, a soldier in an artillery unit in Anbar who also was interviewed while on leave in Diwaniyah, “When we fought in Diwaniyah, we knew how to control it, but Anbar we don’t know well, and [ISIS fighters] do.” He did not give his full name for security reasons.

‘Sitting there like bait’

Although the Iraqi armed forces have been more active in Ramadi, the Anbar city of Fallujah remains completely out of the state’s control nearly two months after being seized by the Islamist fighters.

The Iraqi government is attempting to recruit local tribes to negotiate a withdrawal of the Islamist fighters from Fallujah, fearing that sending ground forces into the city where U.S. troops faced some of their most deadly fighting in Iraq would lead to a bloodbath.

So for now, soldiers are stationed at bases outside the city, where they say they are subject to frequent hit-and-run attacks.

“We just sit there and al-Qaeda progresses toward us,” said a 28-year-old soldier from Diwaniyah, who declined to give his name. “We are sitting there like bait. The army is a victim of the decision-makers.”

The Iraqi government does not release figures on the number of soldiers killed in the conflict. In an interview last month, Maliki said 80 members of the security forces had been killed in the first two weeks of January.

Diwaniyah is among the cities paying the price of the conflict.

There is little industry in this city in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland, so young men have scarce employment options other than the army. But even as coffins return from the Anbar battlefields, few here question the importance of fighting the Sunni insurgency.

“Iraq deserves its sacrifices,” said Qassim Farhan, 35, whose 26-year-old nephew was killed with two others in an attack near the village of Saqlawia, a few miles northwest of Fallujah, in late January. “These people are against us, and seek nothing but destruction and death.”

Loveday Morris is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.
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