BESMAYA, Iraq – At this bleak and dusty military outpost south of Baghdad, soldiers from Iraq’s 9th Armored Division say they are ready to fight the Islamic State. Just give them the right weapons.
Maj. Mohamed Abdul Kareem al-Kadhim, one of about 1,200 Iraqi soldiers undergoing training here, said he and his fellow troops have already received M16 rifles. But they are waiting for the government to provide heavy rounds needed for exercises on their T-72 Soviet-era tanks. Until then, he said, they will improvise the best they can.
Some of the 9th Division troops receiving instruction from Spanish, Portuguese, British and American trainers at Besmaya are seasoned soldiers who have fought against Islamic State militants in Ramadi and elsewhere. But many from Kadhim’s unit, recruits both young and old, have only a few weeks in uniform after being pulled from civilian work to reinforce the battle against the well-armed extremist group.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. military officer, reviewed the training efforts at Besmaya on Thursday during a visit to Iraq aimed in large part at assessing progress toward an eventual campaign against militants in Mosul, the important northern city that has been under Islamic State control for almost two years.
Ensuring that a cohesive, well-equipped Iraqi force advances into Mosul is at the core of the renewed U.S. mission in Iraq, as military leaders seek to make up for flaws exposed in the army’s partial collapse in the same city in 2014. Among the challenges that U.S. and allied advisers face are ensuring that military equipment is procured and distributed to the right Iraqi units who will take part in that battle, and that foreign advisory efforts transform scattered, demoralized units.
At Besmaya, troops said the Iraqi military’s system for getting pay and supplies to soldiers had improved. They also said that government still lacked artillery and air power. Some complained of poor leadership and corruption in the army’s upper ranks, despite recent efforts at reform.
Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the head of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq, told Dunford that improving the 9th Division would be key in the build-up toward Mosul.
“If we can get that right, hell or high water wouldn’t be able to stop these guys,” MacFarland said after he and Dunford took in tank and mortar training on the base’s sprawling scrubland.
MacFarland, who has sought to accelerate training efforts since he took over last fall, said that training periods may be extended at Besmaya to accommodate the needs of Iraqi soldiers. Across the country, he said, he was pressing Iraqi leaders to train continuously. “If you’re not fighting, you’re training,” he said in a briefing with other military officials.
U.S. officials have not yet said when the Iraqi offensive to reclaim Mosul will begin in earnest, but President Obama suggested this week that progress needed to occur this year.
Dunford’s visit comes just after Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, in a separate visit to Iraq, announced he would send an extra 200 troops and authorize new steps that will enhance support to Iraqi troops, and also expose U.S. service members to greater risk. It also takes place as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struggles to take control of a political crisis triggered by demands for political and economic reform.
Patrick Martin, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said U.S. and allied training efforts had succeeded in training and equipping several Iraqi divisions and ensuring tribal fighters could effectively defend their homes.
But training is still occurring too slowly, he said, leaving Iraq overly reliant on over-stretched counterterrorism troops rather than conventional army units. The military’s logistics and support systems remain underdeveloped, he said, as they have been since the United States began its massive military rebuilding effort in 2003.
“These shortcomings underline the need for the U.S. to offer increased support to the [Iraqi forces] in larger increments if [they are] to make any substantial progress towards Mosul,” Martin said.
Another challenge facing U.S. and Iraqi leaders was visible this week at the joint campaign headquarters in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
There, a suite of video screens showed real-time images from surveillance drones across Iraq, including feeds from a Chinese-made Iraqi drone. On Thursday morning, several screens were locked on an industrial area north of Hit, where Iraqi intelligence believed 20 Islamic State fighters had gathered in a twin warehouse north of the recently recaptured city center.
Authorizing a strike, officials scrambled two Iraqi Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets to hit the buildings. A flash consumed one of the screens. When the flames cleared, the warehouses stood untouched. The Iraqi jets, using unguided munitions, had missed. One by one, the outlines of five or six tiny figures could be seen scurrying from the warehouses to shelter in structures nearby.
According to Marine Lt. Col. Jeff McCormack, who helps oversee operations in the combined center, the Iraqi SU-25s “miss more often than they hit.u
The record is better for Iraq’s roughly half-dozen F-16s, part of a precision air fleet it is hoping to build, but increased air power will come only slowly.