The Iraqi military has gone through several stages since the 2003 U.S. invasion. There was its disbandment by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the hasty attempt at rebuilding by the Americans, its collapse in the face of the Islamic State in 2014, and others. To help give some insights into the recent history of the force is California State University San Marcos’ Middle East Professor Ibrahim al-Marashi who has written about the Iraqi forces over the years including Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History. He can be followed on Twitter @ialmarashi.
1. The original plan for the Iraqi army was to maintain it and use it for rebuilding. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was working to bring back units when it was replaced by the Coalition Provisional Authority. CPA head Paul Bremer’s second order after he took office was to disband the military calling it Saddam’s army and claiming he was doing it for the Shiites and Kurds who had suffered under it. Everyone except Bremer now believes this was a huge mistake sending thousands of angry soldiers into the insurgency. You’ve written that the problem was Bremer completely misconstrued the role of the military. Can you explain what he got wrong?
Bremer’s memoirs serve as his own revisionist history of why his decision was justified, and opportunity to deflect blame.
First, Bremer most likely assumed that Iraq’s Shi’a and Kurds would embrace the decision to disband the Iraqi Army. His first mistake is to conflate Iraq’s Shi’a and Kurds, assuming the “oppressed” under Saddam Hussein would welcome his decision.
As for the Kurds he argued in his memoirs that Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani had pressured to him to disband Iraq’s army. He could have refused their request. The Kurds had the peshmerga in place to maintain security in the north and that an Iraqi army would be needed to keep security in the center and south. He could have offered a plan that regular army units would not deploy in the KRG, which is the security arrangement that exists today.
As for the Shi’a Bremer wrote that they too had been punished by the Iraqi military, particularly after the 1991 Uprisings. Bremer refers to “Saddam’s army” consistently throughout his memoirs, conflating Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military, when in reality they had an antagonistic relation since he came to power as vice president in 1968. Unlike his cousin, Saddam Hussein was not a career military officer.
Bremer conflated units such as Saddam’s Fidayin and the Republican Guards, units designed to protect Hussein’s government with the Iraqi army that was founded in the 1920s.
The Shi’a, Bremer fails to acknowledge, also are a larger population with differing visions of Iraq’s history. Some Shi’a may have regarded the military as an institution responsible for brutal domestic repression and discrimination in favor of Sunni Arabs. Other Shi’a simply saw it an institution from which to escape conscription. And others were loyal to this institution and even took part in Shi’a repression against fellow Shi’a. The Ba’th government could not have survived as long as it did without Shi’a and Kurds taking part in the security forces to repress other “rebellious” Shi’a and Kurds. While historically the Iraqi military may have been dominated by Sunni Arabs, there were distinguished members of the Iraqi military that were either Shi’a or Kurdish or from other minorities.
For example, Sa’di Tuma Abbas al-Jaburi, a Shi’a, and Rashid Husayn Windawi al-Takriti, a Kurd, were respected generals who remained loyal to Hussein throughout the Iran-Iraq War.
Officers from the Shahwani family served as prominent Turkmens in the military, and the family suffered from taking part in a post-1991 coup.
There were even prominent Iraqi Christian officers who served in elite units such as the Special Forces.
Second, Bremer has argued that the army had already “disbanded itself,” his “soundbite” that often gets repeated in the media. In this case semantics is important. Who ordered the disbanding if it disbanded itself? Armies don’t disband due to entropy. The Iraqi army was weakened due to sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s own policy, but it still existed as an institution.
2. Within a year of the invasion the U.S. was faced with not only a burgeoning insurgency but Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as well. The Americans then had to reverse course and rebuild the military. This effort ran into nothing but trouble. You made an interesting comparison that the U.S. was replicating what the British tried to do after it created Iraq. What were the similarities?
First, as a historian I should point out the differences between Britain’s Mandate experience in Iraq and that of the United States after 2003 to avoid the trap of historical determinism.
The tenacity of the insurgency in Iraq post-2003 differed from that which began in 1920. The insurgency of the 1920s and 1930s was entirely an Iraqi phenomenon that took place in the rural plains of the south and center and the mountains of the north. The insurgency post-2003 through ISIS has been mostly urban, with volunteers who are not entirely Iraqi and have no compunction about killing themselves along with civilians in order to further their cause. Finally the Iraqi military after the Thirties introduced conscription, which generated significant resistance, whereas the post-2003 Iraqi military has not.
In my book I was more interested in the comparisons between the British and American experiences do shed light on how Iraqis could use their past to make sense of the present, inspired by Erik Davis’ work on Iraqi historical memory. And indeed there are structural similarities between both efforts.
Both Iraqi armed forces at those times were dependent primarily on foreign nations for technical military expertise and arms.
This dependence on the foreign occupying power training and weapons during an occupation created the image that Iraqi militaries were created to serve the interests of Western powers. Tragically in 2003 Iraqi trying to enlist outside recruiting centers were often targeted by suicide bombers. This did not happen in the Twenties.
In both cases, the early experience in creating a national military was plagued by problems, particularly defections or soldiers sympathetic to rebel forces, whether it be Iraqi tribal elements in the Thirties, or Sunni or Shi’a armed groups after 2003.
3. Iraqis were not really consulted about how the military was being put back together by the Americans either. What did Iraqis think?
Iraqis viewed the process as insulting, as depriving them of the oldest institution in Iraq. There has been an “Iraqi Army day” in January to celebrate the military, equivalent to the American Veterans Day. For Iraqi Arabs the military is viewed through the lens of nationalism. However, for Iraqi Kurds it is understandable that they view the military as the institution that inflicted trauma on Kurdish societies.
4. The U.S. eventually withdrew from Iraq, which opened the door to the politicization of the military under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What did the premier do to make the force loyal to him, and what were the effects?
Essentially Maliki continued Saddam Hussein’s practice of fostering elite, smaller units loyal to the leader, alongside the regular Iraqi army. Rather than making the military loyal to him, Maliki developed his own “praetorian guardian,” consisting of the counter-terrorism force known as the Golden Division, which around that time was derogatorily referred to as Maliki’s “private army.” The Division reported directly to the prime minister, outside the chain of command of the regular armed forces. (It’s quiet astonishing to think today how popular it is, and how the removal of its commander sparked the recent protests in October 2019).
Prior to the rise of ISIS the military itself was heavily politicized. For example, Maliki’s Da’wa party dominated the Eighth Division in Diwaniyya and Al-Kut, ISCI maintained influence over the Fifth Army Division in the Diyala Province, and the PUK exerting preponderant control over the Fourth Division in the Salah al-Din Province. At the same time, while the PUK might have had a presence in the regular army of the federal government of Iraq, the regular army in theory was precluded from operating in the area under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Finally, under Maliki’s watch the military was also weakened by what become known as Iraq’s “ghost army,” referring to military rosters inflated by fictitious names, with officers collecting their paychecks. Officer posts were awarded to political loyalists, rather than any military acumen. These officers used these posts to extract wealth for themselves, either through inflated rosters or skimming off the proceeds used by the lower ranks controlling checkpoints and charging a transit fee.
All of these trends indicated why Iraq’s military forces collapsed on the eve of the ISIS offensive in the summer of 2014.
5. In 2014, the army lost several divisions when the Islamic State seized Mosul. The U.S. eventually created an international Coalition that is still working to rebuild the military for the second time in nearly a decade. Are there any similarities and differences between this time and when the Americans first tried it during the occupation?
Mostly differences, including a greater role for NATO in the retraining effort.
After the 2003 insurgency erupted the U.S. training mission sought to develop an Iraqi military that could deal with hit-and-run, tactics typical of a guerilla war meant to wear down the resolve of the enemy. ISIS was a different type of insurgent group, which held cities and territory. This required retraining the Iraqi military forces in sustained urban combat, fighting street-by-street, house-by-house.
This transformation of training the Iraqi military from counter-insurgency to urban combat explains why it took so long to be deployed on the front lines, creating a security vacuum which the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Shi’a militias filled.
Unlike 2003, in 2014 there existed a sovereign Iraqi government that requested the U.S. training mission. Close to 5,200 American troops served in this advisory capacity. Of course, this military mission has become more politically contentious under the Trump administration which has lobbied Iraq to rein in the militias, particularly those linked with Iran. As ISIS has retreated to Iraq’s peripheries Iraqi politicians have called for the withdrawal of these US forces.
The NATO training mission in Iraq was also requested by the Iraqi government. During the 2018 NATO summit Canada announced it was assume the leadership of this mission, yet the mission has only just begun and it is too early to assess how its impacted the Iraqi military.