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Iraqi Army (IA)
New Iraqi Army (NIA)

Iraqi ArmyIraq’s army was once a formidable military that waged an eight-year war with Iran. The US spent over $20 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces. But in June 2014 once-proud Iraqi army simply collapsed and failed to defend the country’s second-largest city. Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops abandoned their posts and fled. By early 2015 the Iraqi army remained in very poor shape, boasting a frontline combat strength of about 48,000 troops versus nearly 210,000 at the height of its effectiveness in 2009.

An estimated 1,200 ISIS fighters were able to topple Mosul, which was supposedly protected by 60,000 troops. Before these troops disintegrated in Mosul in June 2014, the Iraq army was losing as many as 300 soldiers a day to desertion, death, and injury. When they abandoned Mosul in mid-June, military personnel abandoned their vehicles, discarded their weapons, discarded their uniforms onto the street, and changed into civilian clothes.

By 14 June 2014 the situation in the Sunni north-western parts of Iraq amounted to the collapse of the forces of the army and federal police. With the fall of Nineveh Mosul, operational command virtually ceased, with the defeated remnants of the 2nd Infantry Division of the Iraqi army and the third motorized division of the federal police in Iraq running south or towards the Kurdish autonomy. The road between Baghdad and Mosul was cut, and in the province of Salah al-Din, militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Sham) launched an offensive and captured the Tikrit administrative center as well as Suleiman Bek, Baiji (along with a large oil refinery there), etc. The situation for the Iraqi forces operational command "Tiger" was extremely unfavorable, with the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit defeated and / or running. Also according to reports from the Kurds, the 12th Infantry Division in Kirkuk was close to panic, with mass desertion and abandonment of combat positions.

International media reported that two division of Iraqi soldiers — roughly 30,000 men — fled an insurgent ISIS force of approximately 1,000. Iraqi troops who fled the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters into Mosul denied that they abandoned their posts, saying that they had received orders to flee from up the chain of command.

Stephen Zunes, a scholar of Middle Eastern politics at the University of San Francisco, observed "You can arm and train the local government armed forces all you want, but the question is: are they willing to fight and die for the government? And unfortunately, the Maliki government has alienated so many people in the country that they don't really seem to have the popular support where enough soldiers are willing to risk their lives".

Michael Knights reported in June 2014 that "Around 60 of 243 Iraqi army combat battalions cannot be accounted for, and all of their equipment is lost. It will be a mammoth task to put these units back together and rearm them." Michael Gordon reported that "American officials said their assessment was that five of the Iraqi Army’s 14 divisions were “combat ineffective,” including the two that were overrun in Mosul. ... since the withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011, the skills of Iraqi forces have atrophied, American officials said. The Iraqi military is not practiced at maneuvering on the battlefield and has become a “checkpoint army,” a force that is adept at checking identification but not at taking the fight to its enemy."

Weak Leadership

The role of the officer corps remained confused. According to some accounts, the Maliki government had promoted officers based on political loyalty, producing a militarily imcompetent officer corps. By other accounts, Iraqi soldiers reported that their officers had ordered them to surrender rather than fight.

“We are not deserters. Our commanders abandoned us while we were sleeping at night, and fled by helicopter,” Mahmoud Fahd, an Iraqi soldier who survived the ISIS attack told Asharq Al-Awsat. “When we woke up in the morning, there were no [military] officials at the post. Our officers told us to put on civilian clothes and return to our families,” the Iraqi soldier added.

“If the government is either acutely sectarian or acutely corrupt or both, so that large swaths of the population feel disenfranchised and in fact humiliated by their own government, no amount of local security forces are really going to make up for that deficit,” said Sarah Chayes, who was special adviser to former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

The IISS reported in its Military Balance for 2013 that that the Maliki government had introduced the equivalent of untrained political commissars called dimaj into the force structure, and that, “a broad set of problems continue to plague the Iraqi Army...The first involves weaknesses in management, logistics and strategic planning. The unwillingness, of senior military officials to delegate responsibility down, the chain of command also stifles innovation and independent decision-making at a junior level.” Between 2003 and 2005, over 15,000 [by some estimates] Shiite Islamist militia personnel were incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). These dimaj (direct accession) personnel lacked formal professional education as soldiers or policemen. Dimaj officers were inserted into the senior ranks.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced 12 November 2014 that 36 commanders had been removed from office and 18 others installed to promote professionalism and “combat corruption.” The names were not disclosed, but those replaced were said to include the chief of ground forces, the military chief of staff and the commander of operations in Anbar Province. Tellingly, this announcement came from the Prime Minister, not the Minister of Defense.

Ghost Soldiers

When the United States pulled its forces out of Iraq in 2011, it came with an important caveat: to prevent the country’s collapse, Iraqi forces had to first be trained to maintain stability in the region. It was a goal the US invested billions in, and at its post-invasion peak, the Iraqi Army numbered nearly 280,000 fighters. Since, that number decreased dramatically. While Iraq’s Foreign Ministry of Defense claimed it employed 141,000 active-duty soldiers as of April 2015, some estimates suggest the true tally may be as low as 50,000.

By 2014 the Iraqi army suffered from unhappiness among soldiers as a result of the underpayment or nonpayment of wages for months, particularly in the north and west. Here the army suffered from declining morale and desertions in the early months of 2014. This came as it battled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which had seized control of Fallujah and Ramadi at the beginning of 2014. The Army made no gains against a foe that was well armed and highly motivated.

Desertion rates depended on whether units were deployed outside their home areas or were operating against insurgents of their own religious or ethnic background. Desertions were reported to be particularly high among Sunni soldiers from Sunni-dominated central and northern Iraq. There were significant loyalty issues in predominantly Sunni Arab units commanded by Shi'ite officers, following the purges of Sunni officers over the previous three years under the Maliki government. The Iraqi army in the north and west also suffered from low morale among Shi'ite soldiers from the south of the country, who had neither a regional nor communal affinity with the populations they were defending. Over 90 percent of the Iraqi Army is composed of Shi'ites.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office announced on 30 November 2014 that an investigation had revealed the existence of 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’. It was not immediately clear which agencies this headcount represented - the 170,000-200,000 strong Army, or the more than 450,000 nominal headcount at the Ministry of Interior, but reports suggest the 50,000 ghosts were from the Army alone.

The presence of numerous ghosts is suspected in all state facilities, and not only in the military institution. The estimated 400,000-strong security forces apparatus built up with US assistance has been estimated to have shrunk down to as few as 85,000 active troops following the disintegration of several divisions after the Islamic State militant group captured Mosul.

‘Ghost soldiers’, literally translated from Arabic as ‘space men’, are soldiers listed on the payroll of Iraq’s security forces, but do not actually exist. Officers and even the commanders of entire brigades have been suspected of listing more men under their command than really exist. They do so by firing soldiers and not taking them off the payroll, splitting salaries, pocketing half and giving the rest to men who do not show up to work, and even listing soldiers who have defected or been killed.

“The prime minister revealed the existence of 50,000 fictitious names” in the country’s military, a statement from Abadi’s office noted after a regular session of the country’s parliament. The statement noted that the prime minister had already scrapped the phantom jobs, equivalent to nearly four army divisions. “Over the past few weeks, the PM has been cracking down to expose the ghost soldiers and get to the root of the problem,” Abadi’s spokesman Rafid Jaboori said.

Mohammed Othman al-Khalidi, former lawmaker and leader of the Mutahidoun political bloc in Iraq’s parliament, told al-Monitor that these “ghost employees were one of the reasons behind the shocking collapse of the Iraqi army before the Islamic State in Mosul” this past June. Khalidi estimated that up to 30 percent of Iraq’s army were actually ‘ghosts’, noting that this problem exists at all levels of government, not just in the military. Explaining the deep roots of the problem of ghost personnel, Qasim Mozan noted that it existed in Iraq to some extent even before 2003, while Saddam Hussein was still in power.

One Iraqi lawmaker, Kameran Bajelan, told VOA's Kurdish service that the number of ghost soldiers "is much higher than the announced" figure.

Iraq Train and Equip

As of June 30, 2011, the IA had a nominal strength of almost 200,000 soldiers — a force USF-I characterized as capable of maintaining domestic security with limited support from the U.S. military. Although the police had increased their size and capabilities — and had replaced IA units as the lead in some local areas, at that time the IA remained in the lead in 14 provinces, with operational control for security residing inseven regional operation commands.

The transfer of internal security to police would free up IA units to focus on the development of traditional combined-arms capabilities and external defense. Plans called for elements of four IA divisions to be withdrawn from domestic security operations in January 2012 for additional training by the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I) in combined-arms operations. As an initial step in this process, USF-I is helping the IA integrate mortarmen and combat engineers into the infantry units. US military advisors planned to start training IA mechanized infantry units on more advanced combined-arms tactics in July, including the proper use of 1,100 new armored personnel carriers, 140 M1 Abrams main battle tanks, and an array of modern indirect-fire systems.

The Iraq Army had been reduced to 10 of its former 14 Divisions following the onslaught of the ISIL advance. While the GoI was making efforts to recruit and train new personnel, they lack the ability to professionally train and equip the forces required to conduct counter-offensive operations, and need US and Coalition assistance. While the trend on the battlefield had been promising in stemming ISIL gains, Iraq lacked the training expertise and equipment to field the forces needed to liberate territory lost to ISIL, and to protect its population and critical infrastructure.

To successfully conduct counter-offensive operations, Iraq needed to train, equip and field three Iraqi Army Divisions (9 Brigades), three Kurdish Brigades, and an initial Tribal Force for an eventual Iraqi National Guard brigade. The GoI has requested US assistance to train and equip these forces.

The focus of DoD efforts is to work with, by and through the GoI to build the necessary military capability to counter ISIL. The program addresses the immediate equipping issues brought on by the rapid expansion of ISIL into Iraq and the requirements for counter-offensive operations. The GoI is lead and will share in the cost burden of creating these necessary forces; U.S. assistance levels are limited and are focused on bridging the most critical near-term capabilities consistent with countering ISIL. Coalition participation and financial support will also be actively sought to share costs.

Equipping the various Iraqi forces is dependent on Iraq’s ability to resource forces at the local, provincial, and national level. This program facilitates the counter-ISIL efforts by the Iraqi security forces, and builds the foundation for the new restructured future Iraq Army and the framework for the creation of the Iraq National Guard.

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