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Analysts Say Loss of Ramadi Shows Inherent Iraqi Army Weakness

An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter walks with his weapon past internally displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in the city of Ramadi at the outskirts of Baghdad, May 19, 2015.
An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter walks with his weapon past internally displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in the city of Ramadi at the outskirts of Baghdad, May 19, 2015.

Analysts say the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to Islamic State insurgents has again demonstrated inherent weaknesses in the Iraqi army.

Iraqi government military and security forces fled Ramadi Sunday, the capital of Anbar Province, in the face of an IS onslaught. Left behind for the terrorists was a trove of weapons, artillery, vehicles and other gear, just like when IS captured Mosul last June.

To analyst Gareth Stansfield, at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, one major factor in that collapse is a lack of commitment by Iraqi forces.

“GOI [Government of Iraq] forces fail when faced with ISIS because they have no sense of ownership in what they are fighting for,” he told VOA via e-mail, adding, “There is no belief in what they are asked to fight for, and as such, no acceptance that they should put their lives at risk to fight an enemy as determined as the Islamic State.”

Stansfield says the Iraqi Army “has also still not recovered from the years of mismanagement suffered since 2003.” He explained that includes “the way the officer corps was effectively appointed via a process of political allegiance, and from the earlier “De-Baathification” process that effectively removed the most seasoned career officers in Iraq, who are now largely [fighting] with the Islamic State.”

Analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, points out a key reason why the Iraqi army isn’t structured to fight.

“The army is an army which was shattered," he told VOA, "and had essentially disintegrated before the new prime minister [Haider al-Abadi] took office. People tend to forget that when the U.S. military came back and became directly involved in the “train and assist” mission, that there was a warning that this would take two to three years.”

Another factor, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies analyst Ben Barry, is that significant elements of the Iraqi army were held back for training.

“The U.S. and its allies have been training Iraqi ground forces at four training bases in Iraq,” he told VOA. “Now, that in itself may be part of the problem with Ramadi, because to withdraw brigades from the front line for training makes the front line thinner.”

The capture of Ramadi, 130 km west of Baghdad, was more than just a military victory for the Islamic State. As Barry notes, the city was a major battleground for U.S. forces in 2006-2007, making its capture a psychological “fist in the face” of Washington.

“From the point of view of ISIS, and particularly their political leadership and their propaganda campaign, this is good news,” Barry remarked.

Analysts say Ramadi’s fall to terrorists also points to the weakness of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his government, which issued calls for Shia militias to assist regular Iraqi troops in an effort to retake the city.

RUSI’s Stansfield says, “The most effective of these is the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which is tied directly to the Quds Force IRGC of [Iranian General Qassem] Suleimani. But there are others, including the umbrella Hashed al-Shaabi, the Badr Army, [and] the Saraya al-Salam to name but a few.”

Stansfield says General Suleimani, “ Baghdad, has already organized the defense of the city, relying heavily on the militias, with the ISF [Iraqi military] largely in support.”

To analyst Cordesman, a major question surrounding these Shia militias is whether they can work constructively with other fighters in a collective effort to bolster Baghdad.

“One question, really, here,” he told VOA, “is are there elements that actually can operate in support of the Sunnis, and the Sunni population that will work with the Iraqi army, and won’t basically have a different agenda and different priorities?”

Indeed, the sectarian divide has already produced a number of incidents where Shia militia fighters have gone beyond suppression of the Islamic State to attack Sunnis and destroy their villages as part of a long-standing “payback” for grievances the Shia suffered under Saddam Hussein and earlier Sunni leaders. The hyper-partisanship of the previous Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, only amplified the hostilities between the two Muslim factions.

In the U.S.-led “surge” of 2007, a key factor in taking Ramadi and other parts of Anbar was getting Sunni tribes to “buy in” to the fight through the “Sons of Iraq” and similar programs, many of which provided cash to participants.

Today’s situation, according to Middle East Institute analyst Graeme Bannerman, is quite different. “By resisting the Islamic State,” Bannerman told VOA, “local tribes now face eradication and not just defeat. Moreover, some of the younger members of the tribe find appealing much of what the Islamic State is espousing, so many tribal leaders are no longer certain they have total tribal loyalty and the ability to protect their tribes.”

Bannerman goes on to say, “It was one thing to take on the extremists with American military backing. It is quite another when you are pretty much on your own.”

Analyst Stansfield says the Islamic State has allure for young Sunnis because it is seen as furthering their interests. “ISIS, if they give their allegiance [to it], at least arms and empowers them, badges their Sheikhs as Emirs, and gives them an opportunity to fight for at least what are seen as the kinsmen, rather than those in the Government of Iraq.”

Both Baghdad and Washington say they are committed to retaking Ramadi. But as Anthony Cordesman points out, success will depend on disparate groups that don’t get along with one another finding a way to do so.

“What it takes is finding a disciplined brigade, or two brigades, of Iraqi forces, [along with] trying to see if there are elements in the popular militia that we can trust, and will actually work with Sunnis,” he said. “Trying to find some kind of Sunni elements that will make it clear that this is not simply a Shia advance. And then it means that the Iraqi government has to be ready to not simply drive the IS out, but [also] provide immediate incentives for people to come back, to support them, and keep them secure.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations reports it is running out of supplies and funds to cope with the 130,000 people who fled Ramadi in April, and now another 25,000 who have left in the past few days. Many of these refugees have headed toward Baghdad, which in its present state is not well equipped to handle such a flood.

Lise Grande, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator, said, “Nothing is more important right now than helping the people fleeing Ramadi. They are in trouble, and we need to do everything possible to help them.”

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.