Military Capabilities

Analysis: Why has the Iraqi army struggled to counter ISIL advance?

15 June 2014
Vehicles belonging to the Iraqi army have been abandoned as soldiers abandon their posts in the wake of the ISIL advance. Credit: PA Photos

As ISIL militants seize Iraqi cities at an unprecedented pace, Iraqi Army (IA) divisions have disintegrated across the northern provinces. ISIL is now reported to have operational presence in large areas of the provinces of Ninawa, including its capital Mosul and one of Iraq’s largest cities, Salaheddine and Diyala. ISIL earlier established control in Anbar provinces and has held on to Fallujah and at least parts of the provincial capital Ramadi, despite sustained attempts by government forces since January 2014 to expel them. At least five army installations are reported to have been taken over by ISIL in northern Iraq, with officials in Baghdad confirming to media that insurgents had taken into possession weapons from the Mosul Army base. International media have also reported that the military may be bombing some of its own bases in an attempt to curb further seizure of weapons and equipment.

With the group releasing a statement threatening to move towards Baghdad and the southern Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, doubts remain about how the army will repel incoming attacks and reverse ISIL gains. The most critical issues for the government at the moment are the alarming rate of desertions of army personnel, deteriorating morale, and the capabilities of the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF) and army aviation to affect any substantial changes on the ground.

Widespread desertions

Media reports have emerged this week of soldiers citing a collapse of the army leadership in Mosul, with officers ordering personnel to abandon their posts. Social media reports and eyewitness accounts indicate that IA personnel have been abandoning their vehicles, and changing out of uniforms before leaving the city. Unconfirmed reports have stated in addition to deserting posts, soldiers may also be surrendering or being killed in significant numbers. Iraqi officials have been cited as observing that at least two divisions of soldiers fled faced with an ISIL force of around 800.

In interviews over the past week, soldiers have given accounts of battalions worn down by the sustained offensive against militants in western Iraq since the start of 2014, with desertions having begun several months ago in Anbar, as the army’s death toll mounted. Some reports suggest the army is “losing as many as 300 soldiers a day between desertions, deaths, and injuries”. Soldiers deserting Mosul have cited snipers, suicide bombers, scarce ammunition, and even hostile residents as reasons for leaving the city.

Further, the desertions may not come as a surprise to the government given the IA’s demographic composition and recruitment and training challenges. A large number of IA recruits are understood to have joined the force as a way to secure paid employment, rather than loyalty to the central government. Following the defection of more than 1,000 troops of mostly Kurdish origin from the IA’s 16th Armoured Brigade to the Peshmerga in May 2013, concern has remained about the sectarian fault lines that plague the country’s security progress. Soon after the formation of the new IA, former coalition personnel confirmed to IHS Jane’s that desertion rates depended on whether the units had to deploy outside their home areas or operate against insurgents of their own religious or ethnic background. The desertion of Sunni soldiers this week may serve to heighten risks of renewed sectarian conflict.

A telling sign of the army’s capabilities was the recruitment of local tribesmen in Anbar to form a new combat force to support the IA against the ISIL, an indication that the IA was incapable of holding territory over vast desert areas in the province. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Governor of Mosul Atheel Nujaifi have called for civilians to volunteer to form self-defence militias in their neighbourhoods. It remains to be seen if locally recruited civilian volunteers provided with expedited or no training would be able to contribute significantly in supporting the IA in its operations against ISIL.

Equipment and weapons

Images coming out of ISIL-captured areas appear to show IA armoured vehicles captured or destroyed. Given the widespread desertions of IA personnel, the government is faced with depleting numbers of ground forces to repel attacks and recapture lost territory, and will be forced to rely on air support. Unconfirmed reports this week suggest the IQAF may have launched air strikes in Mosul and Tikrit targeting ISIL. Following the emergence of evidence last month that the IA used barrel bombs in attempts to regain insurgent-held territory in Fallujah, Al Garma, and Saqlawiya in Anbar province, the possibility of their use on newly captured territories this week remains open; the government, however, has denied reports of the bombs being used.

The 2011 withdrawal of US forces has given the Iraqi military scarce time to develop as an effective force. The IA is primarily a light infantry force, with its sole armoured division located at Taji, north of Baghdad. Despite the 9th Armoured Division receiving M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) from the United States, the IA overall has limited mobility. Even as of late 2013, the IA was incapable of carrying out independent operations, given logistical challenges. This would be exacerbated by insurgent capabilities to disrupt the army’s supply lines and access routes as seen in Anbar earlier this year. Although having taken delivery of towed and self-propelled 155 mm howitzers, the IA lacks superior artillery capabilities, with the US Department of Defense assessing in 2011 that shortcomings in training infrastructure would prevent the IA from reaching "combined arms proficiency above the company level [infantry with tanks, artillery, engineers, and army helicopters all conducting synchronised fire and manoeuvre training]" until at least 2014. The Iraqi Special Forces (ISOF) form one of the most effective land forces, and have been reported to be deployed to Samarra and Baiji this week, and earlier in Anbar.

The army operates only rotary-wing aircraft, while fixed-wing aircraft are operated by the IQAF. The air force is likely to rely on the AC-208B Grand Caravans that are equipped with Hellfire missiles, and have been used in Anbar to carry out precision strikes. The army’s Mi-24 attack helicopters have also been used in operations earlier this year. A 2013 annual report released by the Russian helicopter manufacturer Rostvertol has revealed that Iraq has on order more than 40 aircraft, including Mi-35 combat helicopters as well as Mi-28s. Iraq is also looking to buy 24 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and was scheduled to receive six AH-64s in January 2014 for use until the deal for 24 Apaches is completed. However, as of January 2014, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have refused to approve the sale of any AH-64 helicopters to Iraq, a possible sign that US policymakers fear the attack helicopters could be used against political opponents instead of suspected insurgents.

Government forces will be focusing on securing the perimeter around Baghdad, with standing forces being concentrated around the capital and the southern cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Kurdish Peshmerga force has been reported to have taken full control of Kirkuk, located just outside the autonomous northern Kurdish region that the IA abandoned. The involvement of any external forces including Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in ISIL-held areas remains unconfirmed.

Related article: Analysis: After ISIL seizes key territory in offensive across noerthern Iraq what happens next?

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