DUBARDAN, Iraq — The Iraqi police and special forces officers practice drills next to a cluster of tents that constitute their base. They have a grand aim: to drive Islamic State fighters out of one of their strongholds, the city of Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh.
For the time being, though, commanders are struggling to feed the men, let alone arm them.
Set up just over three months ago by northern Iraqi officials, the ambitiously named Nineveh Liberation Camp, on the edge of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, seems to be just the kind of initiative for which the U.S. government had hoped. It is home to hundreds of Iraqi men who say they want to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State. Thousands more have signed up to participate, commanders say. But assistance from the Iraqi central government and elsewhere has been slow to materialize.
The camp’s problems highlight the logistical and political challenges in rebuilding Iraq’s devastated security forces, and they signal just how far those forces are from being able to launch a major counteroffensive on Mosul.
Local political rivalries have hampered the camp’s establishment, while building a largely Sunni Arab force in Iraqi Kurdish territory with the support of the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has involved navigating layers of mistrust.
Nineveh Liberation Camp is not the only such project to run into difficulty. Even the U.S. Army is learning how difficult it is to rely on Iraqi logistics as it begins training Iraqi army forces, with deliveries of ammunition and equipment frequently delayed. Meanwhile, a much-touted new Iraqi national guard force is yet to get off the ground.
Some analysts have argued that Iraq would be better off reforming and retraining existing forces such as the men at the Nineveh camp rather than creating new forces. Most of the participants at the camp worked as police officers in Mosul before it fell to the Islamic State in June. They have a history of fighting Sunni extremists, knowledge of the local geography and a vested interest in freeing their home city.
But they are struggling to reconstitute themselves as a fighting force.
After weeks with no weapons, the men got their first delivery of arms from the central government in December, briefly lifting spirits — until the police saw what they had been sent. The officers complain that the 2,000 Bulgarian-made rifles that sit in a shipping container next to their tents are virtually useless.
“They are mocking us by sending us this,” said Sgt. Saddam Namis, 44, a special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, officer. “These aren’t even proper Kalashnikovs. They overheat when you fire them, they jam. You can’t use them in a street fight.”
He proudly showed off videos of himself marching through Mosul in full combat gear before the city fell. “We were the elite,” he said.
“Now look at what we have,” he said, picking up his shoddy-looking body armor. “You can buy them for $11 in the market.”
Camp commanders have requested more-advanced equipment from U.S. officials who have visited the camp but so far with no result. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Some police officers suspect that they have received limited support because of the Shiite-led central government’s lack of trust in a largely Sunni force. In fact, the national government relies heavily on Shiite militias for security. But other factors also are at play.
Rocky relations between the central government and the semiautonomous Kurdish region have complicated the delivery of supplies. Moving arms through the Kurdish region or setting up weapons training requires coordination and cutting through red tape.
Meanwhile, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the displaced Nineveh governor who is backing the camp, is deeply unpopular in some circles, with much of his provincial council calling for his dismissal, saying he played a role in Mosul’s fall.
“Any force, when they face defeat or disaster, they have to regroup,” said Gen. Khalid al-Hamdani, Nineveh’s police chief and head of the camp. “This is our regrouping point. But I’m not satisfied with the quality or quantity of support.”
Hamdani said that 4,735 former Nineveh police officers have signed up to join the force but that he cannot afford to feed more than a few hundred without financing from the central government. But there are signs of progress, with the men now receiving salaries, which had not been paid for months.
Still, their weapons stock, which includes 50 machine guns, is paltry compared with the equipment possessed by Islamic State militants, much of which was seized from Iraqi security forces.
Hamdani, who took over as Nineveh police chief on the day in June that the extremists overran Mosul, acknowledges that his officers abandoned their weapons and fled as the militants advanced in June, but he said the army was the first to collapse. Most of Nineveh province is now in the hands of Islamic State.
“There was a weakness in leadership,” he said. “But these men have the will to fight.”
The SWAT sergeant Namis, like many in the camp, still has family in Mosul. His wife, seven children and brothers remain there. He says that means he is motivated to win back the city.
Communication with Mosul has been severed. After dismantling the phone networks, the Islamic State cut off the Internet at the end of December and tightly controls movement in and out of the city.
Those measures have been seen as signs of increasing paranoia among the Islamic State’s leaders, as Iraqi and U.S.-led airstrikes target their positions.
Before the Internet was blocked, the men here say, they sensed growing discontent in Mosul, where Islamic State fighters have struggled to provide services.
In a speech this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the Iraqi police are expected to play a key role in holding territory in cities as they are liberated, with the army confined to the peripheries.
The United States shares that view.
“There will be a need for a police presence quickly behind the assault echelons,” retired Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the U.S. special envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, said at a news conference Wednesday as he described preparations necessary for a counteroffensive on Mosul.
But the police say they remain inadequately supported.
The Shiite volunteers and militias “have support, they have weapons, equipment and salaries from the government,” said Lt. Hardan Khalaf, a 25-year-old recruit. “We are the official security forces. We belong to the Ministry of Interior and are part of the state, but we get nothing.”
So, with his colleagues, he spends his days exercising and drilling in the winter sun. In the parking lot sits a row of shiny new Mitsubishi pickup trucks, another delivery from Baghdad that was met with disappointment. The men had hoped for armored vehicles.
“These pickups are for farmers,” said Safwan Ahmed, a 25-year-old SWAT officer. “Can you just imagine using them in battle?”