Iraqi soldiers of the 6th Division (Strategy Page)
With Iraq’s on-going political impasse over forming a new government dragging into its ninth month, some have brought up a military coup in Iraq as a possibility. The latest example was an article by United Press International from December 1, 2010 that said a military take over could happen given the country's history of military rulers. What this piece and others fail to understand is the divided nature of Iraq’s armed forces that make a coup highly unlikely.
A coup in Iraq doesn’t appear a possibility anytime soon because the army lacks cohesiveness. That’s due to the way the United States put the Iraqi forces together. From 2003-2008 the Americans focused upon building up the Iraqi army as quickly as possible. Quantity over quality was the main concern. That meant things like loyalties and political parties placing their followers into the forces were largely overlooked. For instance, after the January 2005 elections, the Shiite and Kurdish parties recruited their followers en masse into the army at both the entry and top levels. That’s how 35,000 former Kurdish peshmerga fighters ended up in the army. The peshmerga are directly under the control of the two ruling parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also been putting his allies into the command structure. That means if a general ordered a coup, not all the forces may follow due to their ethnicity, sect, and political orientation.
Another problem is the institutional divides. There are currently three Iraqi military bodies. There are the Iraqi army brigades, and independent units and commands. The Iraqi army is divided into 14 divisions that come under the Joint Headquarters and the Ministry of Defense. Independent forces are the 56th Baghdad Brigade, the 1st and 2nd Presidential Brigades, and fifteen independent security battalions. They come under the Office of Commander in Chief, which is part of the prime minister’s office. The U.S. and the premier also created a number of operation commands beginning with the Baghdad Operations Command that answers to Prime Minister Maliki. The Office of Commander in Chief and the Operation Commands also bypass the Ministry of Defense and Interior. As one Iraqi officer told the International Crisis Group, this overlapping and often contradictory command structure means there are too many differences and no general that has enough authority to carry out a coup right now.
A coup in Iraq is mentioned every now and then in articles and reports. Writers point to the political divisions that make the government unable to deal with the country’s long-term problems as a reason why some ambitious general may decide to take matters into his own hands. A commander would have to build up the loyalty of a large and powerful force of units to carry out his plans. That would appear to be a difficult task with so many splits within the army, and lack of a cohesive leadership structure. The Iraqi military is developing and hopefully the increasing nationalism will help overcome some of these divisions. Until then the military does not seem a good vehicle to power. As for those that talk about a coup, many appear to want some kind of answer to the country’s endless difficulties. Iraq, with its history of military rule, makes a coup seem like a possible solution to these issues. If they studied the make-up of the Iraqi army, perhaps they would be dissuaded from this line of argument.
Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security In Iraq June 2010,” 9/7/10
International Crisis Group, “Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces Between U.S. Drawdown And Withdrawal,” 10/26/10
UPI, “Iraq’s Kurds build up their own army,” 12/7/10
- “Splintered Iraqi military ‘poses dangers,’” 12/1/10