The Iraqi Army and Shiite militias have now launched an operation to retake Tikrit, a Sunni city 95 miles north of Baghdad that was Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Americans are standing back. The U.S.-led coalition air forces are not flying missions in support because this is essentially an Iranian-organized and -led operation dominated by Shiite militias that answer to Tehran as much as Baghdad.
This may be the shape of things to come.
In mid-February, a Pentagon official made headlines by announcing an April-May time frame for an Iraqi offensive to take Mosul from the so-called Islamic State. Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq. As The Daily Beast reported last week, the Pentagon now says the April/May date is no longer operative. The Iraqi Army, it was explained, is not ready.
It may never be ready.
At the beginning of 2014, the Iraqi Army comprised 17 divisions. By the end of the year, it was at most seven divisions, possibly as few as five. And, even at full strength, the Iraqi Army was not much of a fighting force.
In spite of outnumbering the ISIS attackers by a ratio of between 10/1 and 15/1, the Iraqi Army lost Mosul in just 10 hours on June 10, 2014. The ISIS forces came to Mosul in pickup trucks. The defenders had armored American Humvees, tanks, helicopters, artillery, and advanced rifles, all of which ended up in ISIS’s hands. Two months later, ISIS used these American weapons to attack the Kurds. The United States, which provided weapons worth billions to the Iraqi Army, is now spending hundreds of millions on airstrikes to destroy them.
Pentagon planners understand the deficiencies of the Iraqi Army. It is disorganized, poorly led, politicized, corrupt, and plagued by sectarian and ethnic divisions. But, where they go wrong is to imagine that these problems can be corrected with better leadership, training, and a policy of inclusiveness towards disaffected Sunnis and Kurds.
In fact, the problems of the Iraqi Army reflect the problems of Iraq where Shiites and Sunnis don’t agree on what it means to be Iraqi and where the Kurds unanimously don’t want to be Iraqi at all. The deficiencies of the army cannot be corrected because they reflect the realities of the society.
The Obama administration and virtually all American foreign policy experts blame former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s sectarian policies for contributing to the rise of ISIS. In this telling, Maliki alienated Sunnis by breaking promises to include the Sons of Iraq (the Sunni militia that was key to the defeat of al Qaeda in 2007) in the Iraqi Army, by appointing Shiite loyalists as top officers, and by marginalizing Sunnis in the army, government, and society. Maliki’s administration was sectarian, corrupt and ineffective. But, he may have been right about the Sunnis.
George W. Bush engineered a revolution in Iraq, albeit apparently unaware that he was doing so. The 2003 invasion ended 80 years of Sunni Arab dictatorships and replaced them with democratically elected governments. In each of the elections held since 2005, Iraqi Shiites voted overwhelmingly for Shiite religious parties.
Sunnis, even the many who are not particularly religious, do not accept that the Iraqi identity should be defined in a way that excludes them or treats them as a minority. Many Sunnis believe that Iraq’s new rulers are more loyal to their Shiite co-religionists in Iran than they are to Iraq.
Iran’s decades-long sponsorship of Iraq’s Shiite parties, including the Dawa party of both Maliki and current Prime Minister Haider al Abadi—reinforces Sunni perceptions, which, in any event, may not be wrong. In Baghdad’s Firdos Square, where in 2003 U.S. Marines helped Iraqis topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, there is now a billboard featuring Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.
As the Shiites see it, the Sunnis have refused to accept majority rule. They remember—as American planners seem to have forgotten—that Sunni tribal leaders welcomed and supported the al Qaeda extremists who, between 2003 and 2006, assassinated Shiite clerics, massacred Shiite pilgrims, and bombed markets and bus stations in Shiite cities and towns.
The Sunnis turned against al Qaeda not out of revulsion with the killing of Shiites or because they wanted reconciliation, but rather because the extremists had turned on the tribal leaders. When al Qaeda demanded money, daughters and fealty, the Sunni sheikhs had enough. Helped with American cash, they formed militias that finished off al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in a matter of months.
Maliki understood full well that there was no genuine reconciliation between the Shiite religious parties and the Sunnis. He minimized the Sunni role in the Iraqi Army (and central government) because he saw no value in incorporating Sunnis into an army whose primary mission is to protect a Shiite state from Sunnis. And, he was not wrong in his judgment.
When ISIS approached Mosul, some Sunni officers and troops acted as a fifth column providing intelligence and weapons to the attackers. Sunni soldiers who surrendered either went home or joined ISIS. The Shiite commanders fled to nearby Kurdistan, leaving Shiite recruits to face torture and execution (all recorded in videos) at the hands of ISIS.
Ever since Bush’s administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, dissolved Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003, the United States has struggled to create an effective Iraqi army. It is impossible to build a real national army when Iraqis do not have a shared idea of the nation and when its components see each other as the enemy.
There are, of course, effective fighting forces in Iraq that are combatting ISIS. The Kurdistan Peshmerga pushed ISIS out of territory it took in August and continue to battle ISIS around Kirkuk, Makhmur, and Mosul. The Kurds have sustained nearly 1,000 casualties and, supported by American close air support, inflicted many times that number on ISIS.
The Kurds, of course, are motivated to defend Kurdistan. They may support a Mosul operation from their territory, but they have made it clear that they will not sacrifice Kurdish lives in a Sunni Arab city or on behalf of a country, Iraq, that they don’t want to be part of.
Shiite militias—armed and, in some cases, led by the Iranians—defended Baghdad and Samarra (home to an important Shiite shrine) last summer. More recently, they have pushed ISIS out of villages in religiously and ethnically mixed Diyala province (sometimes clashing with Peshmerga units).
The Iraqi Army itself is increasingly a sectarian institution. Ironically, this may make it a more effective fighting force. Sunni Arabs who remain in the army are reluctant to sacrifice their lives on behalf of a Shiite state, especially if it means fighting against fellow Sunnis. (Many recruits signed up not to defend Iraq but for a salary, which also contributes to a reluctance to get killed.) By contrast, the Shiite militias fought hard in 2014 to defend their homes and their religion. To the extent that the Iraqi Army becomes more like a Shiite militia (albeit paid and better armed), it may share the militias’ zeal.
The Pentagon still sees the Iraqi Army as a national institution and, as a result, provides it with the lion’s share of U.S. military assistance. Seeing it as another of the ethnic and sectarian forces in Iraq is probably more realistic and may lead to a more effective distribution of weaponry. Currently, more U.S. weapons go to an Iraqi Army that is not ready to fight than to a Kurdistan Pershmerga that is fighting. (Iran supplies the Shiite militias as part of the informal division of labor among the anti-ISIS forces.)
If the offensive against Tikrit now underway should fail (and the Iraqi Army has had considerable difficulty trying to take even some small villages adjacent to a large air base in Anbar province), it will not auger well for a Mosul campaign.
But, success in Tikrit will not necessarily translate into success in Mosul. A foreign army—and this is exactly how Mosul’s Sunnis will see the Iraqi Army—fighting house to house in a city of 3 million is certain to kill a lot of civilians even if the Army behaves well, which is unlikely.
Should it lose Mosul, ISIS would still have substantial territory in Iraq, a pool of resentful Sunnis and a sanctuary in Syria.
In a deeply divided Iraq, a successful government offensive to take Mosul may not solve much.