BAGHDAD — The 300 U.S. advisers authorized to assist the Iraqi security forces will find an army in crisis mode, so lacking in equipment and shaken by desertions that it may not be able to win back significant chunks of territory from al-Qaeda renegades for months or even years, analysts and officials say.
After tens of thousands of desertions, the Iraqi military is reeling from what one U.S. official described as “psychological collapse” in the face of the offensive from militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The desperation has reached such a level that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is relying on volunteers, who are in some cases receiving as little as a week’s military training, to protect his ever-shrinking orbit of control.
“Over time, what’s occurred is that the Iraqi army has no ability to defend itself,” said Rick Brennan, a Rand Corp. analyst and former adviser to U.S. forces in Iraq. “If we’re unable to find ways to make a meaningful difference to the Iraqi army as they fight this, I think what we’re looking at is the beginning of the disintegration of the state of Iraq.”
The U.S. government has sped up the supply of reconnaissance equipment since the Iraqi military’s rout in the key northern city of Mosul this month, but the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has expressed frustration at the pace and scope of assistance.
The government’s dire situation was evident Sunday at the Baghdad Operations Command, the nerve center of the capital’s security operations, run jointly by the Interior and Defense ministries. Standing in front of an illuminated map, spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan gestured toward the broad swaths of land outside the city’s boundaries that are now considered hostile territory.
“We treat all these areas surrounding us as hot zones,” he said. Though Maan claimed that security forces were taking the offensive in some areas, advances by the Sunni insurgents in the western province of Anbar over the past few days have raised concerns that the armed forces may crumble further.
Even before tens of thousands of troops disappeared into the night two weeks ago, Iraqi generals complained that they were outgunned by an enemy hardened by years of fighting in Syria and in possession of more advanced weaponry.
In recent weeks, ISIS has seized hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from the Iraqi army, much of which has been smuggled back across the border to Syria, according to Iraqi officials. The frontier is now largely in the hands of ISIS, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq.
Much of that equipment came from the United States. While ISIS militants have posted videos flaunting their use of seized weaponry and vehicles, Pentagon officials said they had no accurate accounting of what had ended up in ISIS hands. Among the tasks of the U.S. advisers, expected to arrive in small units, with only a few dozen initially, is to assess the state of the Iraqi army and its equipment.
Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, head of the Anbar Operations Command, in the critical western province bordering Syria, put on a stoic front Sunday, claiming in a televised statement that “security forces are reviving” and that volunteers are being deployed to the area.
But the addition of tens of thousands of volunteers to the security forces has been chaotic.
Many are joining under the banners of militias, though Maan argued that they will not be able to function as such. When they sign up, they will be given a “week or less” of training and be deployed where they are needed, he said.
“The basic problem with the Iraqi military is that it’s a sectarian force,” said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “That’s combined with the fact that you have sycophantic generals, you have low morale and a Shiite volunteer force. They didn’t do very much training. They don’t have the equipment or skills of the [ISIS] guys.”
The crisis in the armed forces is a result of corruption, poor leadership and intelligence, and severe inattention to training, said a former U.S. adviser to the Iraqi armed forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Those problems have turned what was a functioning military when U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 into an “empty shell that is resorting to a call to arms of men and boys off the street,” he said. He added that the scale of the reverses this month has been “catastrophic.”
Members of the security forces who were serving in Mosul when the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division disintegrated this month complained that the leadership vanished in the face of the ISIS offensive. The speed of the collapse has led to accusations from some soldiers that their leaders were in some way complicit. Maliki is sending 59 officers to court for fleeing their posts.
“It’s the fault of the people higher up. They should have done something,” said an Iraqi police officer who fled Mosul for the Kurdish territories when ISIS swept in. He gave his name only as Taha.
Taha, who had been a police officer for eight years, said commanding officers in the Iraqi security forces had ignored a surge in extremist violence in Mosul in the months leading up to the city’s fall.
The bleak situation in the Iraqi military looks unlikely to change soon. U.S. military advisers will filter in gradually, working first with a few units in Baghdad, American officials said. Some may be deployed to the battalion level. They will initially take on an assessment role, reporting back on the state of the Iraqi military and its needs.
With Iraq’s armed forces in a shambles, only with substantial outside assistance will Baghdad be able to turn the tide of the war, analysts and officials say.
Iraqi officials say their needs are wide-ranging and start with U.S. airstrikes. Some of the most effective tools in the Iraqi arsenal are propeller planes and helicopters mounted with U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles. But two Iraqi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said Sunday that they have run out of missiles, although a delivery is expected within days.
Hamid al-Maliki, an air force commander, said intelligence-sharing has improved as the U.S. government has increased surveillance and reconnaissance. Ten ScanEagle surveillance drones are expected to be delivered in the next 10 days, he said.
The army is attempting to regroup, though it will probably take years to restructure. Troops and police officers who have sought to return to the security forces are quietly being organized on the border of Iraq’s Kurdish region, said Maan and Maliki.“We are opening new bases and reconstructing units that collapsed in occupied areas,” Maliki said. Maan said the new forces include army, police and local volunteers. “Now is not a time to distinguish between army and police, anyone who is willing to work will work,” he said.
But Jabar Yawar, a spokesman for the Kurdish pesh merga security forces that control the front line between the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and ISIS-occupied Mosul, denied that Iraqi forces were reconstituting units in that area.
“In Mosul and Salaheddin provinces, there is no Iraqi army or police or anything,” Yawar said.And each day, ISIS appears to be capturing more ground, expanding its control to the villages at the margins of its burgeoning state, and along Iraq’s border with Syria.
“There is no resistance from the Iraqi army because it has no nationalism, no leadership,” he said. “There is no sense of protection for the nation.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Liz Sly in Baghdad and Abigail Hauslohner in Irbil contributed to this report.