BAGHDAD — In the days before his death last month, Col. Ihab Hashem al-Araji confided that his battle against the Islamic State too often felt like a suicide mission, despite the more than $1.6 billion in U.S. arms and training that have flowed to the Iraqi army over the past two years.
He had even begun taking a white funeral shroud to the battlefield with him.
To support his forces advancing on enemy-held Fallujah, Araji had requested a U.S.-supplied M1 Abrams tank but said he was asked to pay $2,000 in bribes to secure it. Instead, he was given a run-down Russian one, which arrived without a driver trained to use it.
“It was useless,’’ one of his men, Lt. Nassir Hamza, recalled.
When Araji told superiors that his men were too exhausted to go farther, he was ordered to lead another unit, one he had never fought with before.
The next day, he was killed by an Islamic State rocket, a death his family blames as much on the Iraqi army’s mismanagement as on the militants themselves.
Two years ago this week, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops fled Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, as the Islamic State seized control. Senior U.S. and Iraqi military leaders say foreign assistance since then has helped to correct, at least temporarily, some of the Iraqi army’s weaknesses that allowed the city to fall: inadequate intelligence, logistical issues, corruption and poor leadership.
But as Araji’s last days show, many of these problems remain chronic and threaten to undermine even the narrowly focused goals of the U.S. and allied training effort. History indicates that Iraq will need significant help for years to come if the army’s recent successes against the militants are to be maintained.
After disbanding the army following the 2003 invasion, the United States spent more than $20 billion to rebuild the Iraqi military. Senior commanders were incensed when it collapsed on the battlefield less than three years after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
Scrambling to respond to the Islamic State’s rise, the Obama administration developed a plan to retrain and equip elements of Iraq’s shattered military. The effort is centered on creating units capable of defeating the militants in Mosul, which U.S. commanders see as Iraq’s crucial battle, rather than rebuilding the entire army once again.
“How good does it have to be? It has to be better than the enemy,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. “Are they better than the enemy? Yes they are.”
U.S. military officials said that over the past year and a half, training has progressed more quickly than expected, with about 22,000 fighters from the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces completing their training programs. They said headway made against the Islamic State in western Iraq in recent months is proof that local forces are rebounding from their previous losses.
But senior officials are also worried that army and police forces may continue to struggle to provide basic support — such as food and fuel — to their units, while maintaining their vehicles and equipment.
The renewed training program is limited to the near-term fight, and there is no guarantee of what level of support the next U.S. president will want to provide.
At the same time, only limited progress has been made in addressing the frustration Iraqi Sunnis have with their Shiite-led government, a core reason some of them initially welcomed militants into their cities. That jeopardizes the longevity of any territorial victories U.S. trainers hope to achieve.
Military officials described how frustrated U.S. advisers were last winter when they saw that one Iraqi unit taking part in the offensive to reclaim the western city of Ramadi was not moving forward. Tracking the campaign from the safety of a distant air base, the advisers could not tell what was going on.
“It was only by interviewing commanders when they came back to [the air base] that we realized, ‘Oh, it’s because they don’t have any water.’ Once they got water, they started moving again,” a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss foreign military operations. “These are things we in the U.S. military take for granted.”
As Iraqi soldiers ferried a group of journalists to the front lines south of Mosul in a convoy of two Humvees last month, one of the vehicles overheated five times on the 12-mile round trip. The soldiers used bottles of drinking water to cool off the engine as they struggled to restart it on the open desert road.
“Logistics remain the longest pole in the Iraqi tent,” said Col. Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesman. “Spark plugs, spare tires, gasoline, water, food.”
Improvements have been made since the early days of U.S. assistance, when desperate calls from soldiers stranded on army bases without food or water were not uncommon.
But logistics are expected to become more complex as supply lines are stretched when Iraqi forces begin to push toward Mosul, about 250 miles by road northwest of Baghdad.
Until a Mosul offensive is launched, U.S. officials acknowledge, they will not be able to fully measure the strength of the forces and the effectiveness of their scramble to retrain them since 2014.
“We’re not trying to get every unit up to the same standard here,” the defense official said. “We’re trying to get enough units to the ‘good enough’ standard to accomplish discrete objectives.”
While the chief U.S. objective is Mosul, Iraqi forces decided to first launch an offensive to regain the smaller city of Fallujah, which lies closer to the capital, potentially delaying the battle farther north.
Near the town of Makhmour, 40 miles southeast of Mosul, the U.S. support is evident.
At the headquarters of the newly formed 15th Division, rows of new trailers are filled with freshly bought furniture. The Humvees lined up outside are barely scratched.
The ammunition stocks are plentiful, while soldiers have American-supplied AT-4 antitank weapons and M-16 rifles.
“We have the best supply of weapons,” said Ali Abdullah Rasoul, a 22-year-old Iraqi soldier. “Better than any other division.”
But for the moment, at least, the real fight is taking place elsewhere, as security forces close in on militants in Fallujah.
Even these troops, held up as the bright spot of the U.S.-led training program, have struggled to hold on to a series of hamlets, while soldiers admit that they have largely relied on U.S. air support to advance. The situation was similar in larger victories, from Ramadi to northern Sinjar, where U.S.-led strikes flattened the way for ground forces.
And even then, the fighting has largely been led by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces, rather than the army.
Despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s promises to cut graft in the military, corruption remains endemic, with reports of bribes, like the one Araji was asked to pay to secure his tank, still common.
But the promotion of poorly qualified leaders is the army’s biggest problem, said Col. Firas Hussein Abed of the Iraqi army’s 6th Division.
“An army of dogs led by lions will fight like lions, and an army of lions led by dogs will fight like dogs,” Abed said. “Now we have a crisis in lions.”
Araji had spoken candidly about the shortcomings of the Iraqi army in interviews over several years, beginning months before the fall of Mosul.
His family and colleagues said he spent more than $4,000 of his own money to buy ammunition and other equipment on the black market for his men. While supply issues had eased since U.S. support began, Araji had said, other problems were growing.
His associates also recalled a run-in he had several months ago with Shiite militia forces known as popular mobilization units.
He had ordered the militia forces to send reinforcements, but they refused. The militias are officially funded by the state, but the government wields little power over them.
That has raised concerns about sectarian reprisal killings as they approach major Sunni urban centers such as Fallujah. If and when the Islamic State is defeated, there is no fully developed plan for how these armed groups can be brought under state control and prevented from exacerbating the sectarian divisions that brought about the militant group’s rise.
Critics say the United States and its allies risk repeating the mistakes of the past.
“I’ve asked commanders what is our political strategy in Iraq, and they don’t seem to know,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who served in Iraq as a Marine officer in 2004 and 2005, and later returned when President George W. Bush sent in 20,000 additional troops for what was known as the “surge.”
“If you listen to the plans, they are remarkably similar to those we had back in 2007 for the surge. And so it begs the question, since we just did this eight years ago, how is this time going to be different? And the silence is shocking.”
For Moulton, the failings of U.S. policy can be tracked to the decision by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, to dismantle the Iraqi army. “It was a terrible idea,” he said.
Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi agreed that the problems today stem from shortcomings in earlier efforts to build up security forces.
“We are facing the task of rebuilding and reorganizing the army because the way it was built previously was very flawed,” he said.
Obeidi said that partner countries are now providing assistance more effectively and that military support from the United States and allied nations, especially their air power, had made a big difference for the ground effort against the Islamic State, weakening the group and depriving it of funding and supplies.
But Iraq will require military assistance long after the Islamic State is defeated, he said.
When the United States rebuilt the Iraqi army after 2003, it was training a force to deal with the insurgency raging across the country, said Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of the coalition’s ground force component.
“This is not a counterinsurgency,” he said. “We are fighting an enemy that’s defending, that occupies terrain.”
Now, units that have good leadership are performing well, he said.
But leaders such as Araji remain hard to find.
The Americans who worked with Araji, including Moulton, described his death as a blow to the country. “We worked closely with many Iraqis, but none more closely than Ihab,” Moulton said.
In a military short of leaders, Iraq had lost another.
At Araji’s home in Diwaniyah, his colleague Hamza hung his head.
“If I could go back in time, I’d sacrifice my life and my whole family’s for Ihab,” he said. “He was a commander with all the meaning of the word.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.