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Iraq’s elite special forces struggle to regroup after bloody fight for Mosul

Iraqi special operations forces advance during a field training exercise in Baghdad in May. (Sgt. Mitchell Ryan/U.S. Army)

When the Iraqi government launched an online recruitment drive for its elite counterterrorism forces in May, a startling 300,000 men applied. Of those, 3,000 passed a preliminary screening. Only about 1,000 are expected to be accepted into the rigorous joint American-Iraqi training academy, an American military trainer said.

The staggering response points to the popularity of the “Golden Division” following its high-profile role in wresting back territory from the Islamic State. But the rigorous selection process highlights the challenge of rebuilding a force that the United States says lost 40 percent of its human and military resources in the nine-month battle for the city of Mosul.

The counterterrorism forces, numbering only about 10,000, are the undisputed cream of Iraq’s armed forces, but powerful Iran-backed majority Shiite militias are also among the most trusted fighters in the nation. Both are remembered as the forces that stemmed the Islamic State’s march on Iraq in 2014 — as traditional army and police divisions collapsed — and later led the expulsion of the extremist group from its major territorial holdings.

With several important towns in Iraq still under Islamic State control, quickly regrouping the counterterrorism forces remains a priority in the short term. But the force’s strength also has long-term implications for Iraq’s ability to prevent another insurgency from growing.

Replenishing the Golden Division will also likely determine whether Iraq will rely on a regular force firmly under government command to finish the job against the Islamic State and prevent a successor group from forming, or if that task will fall to the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, which have become legal entities of Iraq’s security forces but mostly operate outside the control of the central government in Baghdad.

For the United States, the latter is not an option, given the militias' intimate ties to Iran, and the training and equipping of new Iraqi commandos is quickly becoming central to U.S. policy in Iraq.

“Without this funding, there could be greater opportunities for other states, including the Russian Federation and Iran, to expand their influence in Iraq,” the Department of Defense wrote in a May budget proposal outlining the nearly $1.3 billion request for the training and equipping mission in Iraq for the 2018 fiscal year.

The counterterrorism forces were established by U.S. Special Forces in 2004 to tackle the violent insurgency unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The relationship between the two commando forces remains until today. Some 100 U.S. Special Forces work with their Iraqi counterparts to mold recruits into elite soldiers that “look like us, are mentally agile and conduct operations like we do,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick Roberson, a U.S. Special Operations Forces commander involved in the training of new counterterrorism troops.

Roberson said that Iraqi officers have taken over about 95 percent of the 30- to 40-month training of new troops, but that the United States maintains a close quality-control role — a testament, he said, to the rapid maturation of the officer ranks.

“There’s nothing we can teach them that they can’t teach themselves,” he said.

Their importance to the fight against the Islamic State, coupled with the high rates of casualties they suffered, makes getting troops trained and quickly assigned to units in the field a critical priority. But the lengthy training program may not be able keep up with battlefield losses. Since July, only 500 recruits joined units in the field.

Roberson said that about 2,000 troops graduate from the academy each year.  That pace is well below the U.S. Department of Defense's goal of growing the force to 20,000 troops over the next three years.

The U.S. military said there haven't been and will not be any changes to the counterterrorism service training program to accelerate getting new troops into the field.

Roberson said the challenge is maintaining the high standards of the counterterrorism service through periods of dramatic attrition like the fight for Mosul and the fierce battles that preceded it in Fallujah and Ramadi, in which the group also acted as the leading force.

One idea was to open recruitment to the general public, transitioning from a model that hand-picked promising troops from the ranks of the Iraqi security forces to one that looks for “high quality people” on the street, he said.

While the first attempt at that strategy drew massive interest in May, only 0.3 percent of those who signed up will likely be sworn in, underscoring the immense job ahead.

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