Corruption cripples Iraqi armed forces in the fight against Islamic State

The Iraqi army has not been on point. EPA/Khider Abbas

The people of Iraq have good reason to feel let down by their security forces following Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi. They may well be rightfully questioning where the US$46 billion spent by American and Iraqi governments on equipping and training the new, post-Saddam forces between 2011 and 2014 has actually gone.

Iraq’s army is billed as having a strength of about 200,000 soldiers. And yet territories across northern Iraq have been easily turned over by IS militants over the past year. This merry band of insurgents captured Iraq’s northern capital of Mosul in June 2014 after just four days of combat. An estimated 1,200 IS fighters took the city, which was supposedly protected by about 60,000 Iraqi troops.

Though there have been some victories, Iraq has lost swathes of territory to IS control. So the Iraqi army it would seem is not made up of street fighting men, to quote Mick Jagger.

Ramadi was captured following a Trojan-horse like offensive that saw IS militants surreptitiously infiltrate a downtown district dressed as local police officers. From here they began a fresh attack on Iraqi territory, successfully routed the Iraqi army and took control of the city. To great embarrassment, the largely Sunni provincial council have had to call on the Iranian-backed Shia militias who helped retake Tikrit in April.

Familiar pattern

Despite all the resources invested in the Iraqi security forces and military, they seem incapable of mounting any form of serious resistance against Islamic State fighters, which number around 50,000 personnel spread across territories in Syria and Iraq as well as Libya. The discrepancy in numbers would hint very strongly at an uneven contest. But the reality of confrontations between IS and Iraqi forces have been one-sided – in the opposite direction.

Developments in Ramadi over the weekend are part of a familiar pattern: the capitulation, despite their superior numbers, of Iraqi forces in the face of IS insurgency. But this is not particularly revelatory or a surprise for close observers of the Iraqi military complex.

Victories like the one in Tikrit have been few and far between. EPA/Baraa Kanaan

The dismantling of Saddam’s Ba’ath army by the coalition forces in 2003 saw the end of Iraq’s previously organised and professional army unit. Its passing left not so much a vacuum but a gap for showing off governmental incompetence and cronyism. Iraq is a country split along sectarian lines and when the Americans withdrew, Nouri al-Maliki, the then prime minister of Iraq – and a Shia – ostracised Sunnis from the military and security forces. Their response was to either opt for alternative careers away from the front lines or join fellow Sunni brothers in arms – Islamic State.

The lack of inclusiveness is only half the story here: experienced, battle-hardened, professional soldiers were replaced by commanders and troops whose interests and motivations were more akin to opportunistic business men. Joining the Iraqi army has become more of a career development-style investment opportunity, a bit like a student doing an MBA who hopes that his tuition fees will result in fame and fortune in some blue-chip commercial nirvana. The prospect of fighting off extremist insurgents is not what they signed up for – and it shows.

The joining up racket

An interview by the radical intellectual commentator Tariq Ali with Middle East expert and journalist Patrick Cockburn, one of the first authors to pen a book about the rise of IS, recounts how new recruits to the Iraqi army are motivated less by a patriotic sense of defending the motherland than pure avarice. Joining up is a racket. Cockburn observed in the interview:

Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about US$20,000 dollars, more recently it cost you about US$200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about US$2m.

Once you are installed as an officer or commander this is the gateway to real income generation: you can access the salaries of “ghost soldiers” or half the salaries of real soldiers who then leave their barracks to do their real day job such as driving a taxi. Or, as a commander you can set up checkpoints that act as micro “customs barriers”, forcing trucks to pay a tariff to pass through. There are lots of trucks in Iraq. Hence taking on vicious, bloodthirsty insurgents seems like a distraction from the real purpose of the day job – and pretty dangerous, too.

The loss of Ramadi is reported to represent a considerable setback to the American-backed attempts to wage a military counter offensive to retake territory from IS. US investment in Iraq’s new, post-Saddam security forces has only paid off for Iraq’s new class of military adventure capitalists with a keen sense for commercial openings – not for maintaining the country’s security.