Hussein Shehab knew things were going badly when he spotted the Iraqi police pickup trucks. They were flying the black flag of Islamic State fighters, who were driving the vehicles straight toward him and his fellow Iraqi security force soldiers.
It was June 9 in Mosul in northern Iraq. Shehab, a federal paramilitary police officer assigned to an army unit, realized that other officers had abandoned their vehicles and fled Islamic State fighters who were about to seize Iraq’s second-largest city.
By the end of the day, Shehab’s entire division had collapsed. Two army divisions also disintegrated as thousands of soldiers and police officers shed their uniforms, dropped their weapons and ran for their lives. Shehab, told that his commanders had deserted, tossed his rifle and ran away too.
“We felt like cowards, but our commanders were afraid of Daesh. They were too afraid to lead us,” said Shehab, 43, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Shehab and others in his battalion describe Iraq’s security forces as poorly led and sparsely equipped, with soldiers suspicious of commanders and uncertain they would get enough food, water and ammunition in the heat of battle. Discipline is ragged, men disappear or go on leave at will, and commanders list “ghost soldiers” while collecting their paychecks, they said.
“This army is not prepared to fight. Nobody trusts anyone, not even from their own sect,” said a 32-year-old federal police officer who asked to be identified only by his first name, Amar, for fear of retribution from his superiors.
The military collapsed in Mosul even though Washington spent eight years and $25 billion to train, arm and equip Iraq’s security forces. The United States has now deployed 1,400 advisors to try to rebuild the shattered military into a force that can repel Islamic State.
American commanders say the Iraqi army won’t be ready to mount operations to retake Islamic State-controlled cities such as Mosul for many months. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government has turned to Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Muslim tribesmen as it scrambles to keep the Sunni militants from advancing on Baghdad and its airport.
The U.S. military has not explained how a few more months of “advise and assist” will create a functional army after years of training was followed by wholesale desertions in Mosul and in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. Soldiers and police seeking to avoid mass executions if they were captured left behind weapons, ammunition, vehicles and other U.S.-supplied equipment now used by Islamic State to attack more government positions.
The U.S. military witnessed Iraqi army shortcomings as long ago as 2003. During the American-led invasion that year, thousands of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers — including the supposedly elite Republican Guard — shed their uniforms, tossed aside their weapons and deserted. Among today’s most battle-hardened Sunni militants are Hussein-era Baathist military survivors.
Asked how many Iraqi security forces are combat-ready today, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, said the command could not provide an estimate. He suggested asking the Iraqi army.
Questioned about the army’s combat effectiveness, the commander of security forces in and around Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Abdul Ameer Kamil, said morale has improved as his units shift from defense to offense.
About half of Iraq’s army is deployed in and around Baghdad, according to commanders. A third is in Anbar, where Islamic State controls most of the Sunni-dominated province.
Kamil blamed the Mosul collapse on betrayals by some commanders and frightened soldiers who fled after Islamic State fighters blared public announcements that “Daesh is coming!” Some soldiers joined the militants.
“This will never happen in Baghdad,” Kamil said. “Our troops here have high spirits and they support each other. We have the initiative now.”
Kamil said Iraqi forces were undermined in Mosul by Sunnis who resented the Shiite-dominated security forces and autocratic government in Baghdad and welcomed the Islamic State militants.
Security force members acknowledge that many Sunnis and other minorities see the Shiite-led army as a brutal occupying force. Under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, Sunnis were driven out of the security forces and replaced by Shiites.
“The army became Maliki’s private militia,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who was in charge of military training in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Iraqis in Shiite-dominated greater Baghdad generally support the army, he said. But he also acknowledged that the army cannot defend the surrounding “Baghdad belt” without the help of thousands of Shiite militiamen Kamil calls “volunteers,” particularly because areas just to the north, west and south have a Sunni majority.
Officers in one of many units that collapsed in Mosul, the 2nd Battalion of Iraq’s 3rd Federal Police Division, said their U.S. training was useful. But as soon as their American advisors left, they said, soldiers and police went back to their ways.
“Our commanders told us to ignore what the Americans taught us,” Shehab said. “They said, ‘We’ll do it our way.’”
Shehab and others said their ranks in Mosul were infiltrated by Islamic State agents posing as police or soldiers. The militants knew their plans and operations, they said, and some commanders were sympathetic to Islamic State. Shehab said one of his commanders, a Sunni, had two brothers fighting for the militants.
Eaton said the U.S. carefully built an army that reflected Iraq’s diversity of sects. But Maliki tore that army apart, creating a force Eaton estimated is now 90% Shiite. Worse, Maliki integrated Shiite militias, accused of torturing and killing Sunnis, into the army and police.
Retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, in charge of Iraqi training in 2007 and 2008, said Maliki’s government intimidated and assassinated Sunni officers while Maliki seized personal control of the security forces from commanders. Human rights groups have accused Iraqi security forces of detaining and killing Sunnis.
Dubik estimated that up to 60% of the army could be combat effective if properly led and backed by U.S. advisors and airstrikes. But he questioned whether 1,400 advisors can reconstitute a badly fractured force in a matter of months.
“I don’t know what they’re doing, frankly,” Dubik said of the advisors. “I see us as very slow on the uptake politically and militarily. Ultimately, we will need more advisors and trainers.”
Eaton said advisors can help the Iraqi military with strategy, tactics and intelligence. But without competent ground forces, he said, U.S. and coalition airstrikes will have minimal effect because they cannot teach the “moral component” to fight and die for a common cause.
“Until the Iraqi soldier in his eyes is a legitimate actor for a legitimate government, we are not going to have any hope of success,” Eaton said. “You can’t train them to believe in a constitution and a government.”
American assessment teams are investigating several sites as possible bases for advisor teams now based at the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, the Baghdad airport and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
The Iraqi army has achieved a handful of battlefield successes with the help of an unlikely combination of Shiite militias, Kurdish fighters, Sunni tribesmen and American-led airstrikes.
At the strategic Haditha dam in Anbar province in September, they repelled an Islamic State thrust and retained control.
At the besieged Baiji oil refinery, Iraq’s largest, about 700 Iraqi security forces continue to hold out against Islamic State militants. Iraqi troops and counter-terrorism soldiers, along with Sunni tribesmen, last month mounted an operation to try to break the siege.
Also last month, U.S. planes dropped 16 large bundles of food, water and ammunition for the refinery’s defenders. The troops have also been assisted by attacks launched by Iraq’s small air force.
Meanwhile, U.S.-led airstrikes have compelled Islamic State fighters to change tactics to shield their forces, American officials said. They now refrain from flying their distinctive black flags or moving in large convoys. They also mingle with civilian populations and have cut back on YouTube-ready parades.
But in the Anbar city of Hit, an Iraqi battalion recently abandoned its base while under attack. And crossings along the Iraq-Syria border have remained in Islamic State hands since Iraq’s U.S.-trained border police fled their posts in the face of the militants’ advances this year.
In Mosul, Amar, the federal policeman, said he was allowed to go home on leave even as Islamic State forces advanced in early June. Through cellphone calls, he learned that fellow officers and soldiers were fleeing after their commanders disappeared.
Amar said no one ordered him to fight, and he certainly didn’t volunteer. Instead, he gathered up his family, abandoned his Mosul home and fled to Baghdad.
“Saving my family was more important to me than fighting for the army,” he said.
His battalion mate, Shehab, said he made his way home to Baghdad after tossing aside his Kalashnikov rifle and being called a coward by Kurdish peshmerga fighters who confiscated his police badge and service pistol.
In Baghdad, he said, he was afraid his superiors would brand him a deserter and send him to jail. Instead, just one week after he deserted, he got his police job back.