QUSH TAPA, Iraq — The Iraqi military command has begun a campaign to re-enlist soldiers and officers who abandoned their units, a crucial step in its effort to rebuild an army that has been routed in battle after battle by Islamic State jihadists.
Even as the government has continued to equip volunteers, the de facto amnesty for deserters is an acknowledgment that the army desperately needs experienced soldiers — even ones who ran — for a force that is sustaining heavy losses despite the American-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Army officials at re-enlistment centers in Baghdad and in the northern Kurdistan region say they have seen some success in the effort. More than 6,000 soldiers and officers, including those who were sent home by their commanders as well as those who fled unilaterally, had registered at a military outpost here in Kurdistan, and more than 5,000 had signed up in Baghdad, officials said.
But the returning troops make up only a small part of what has been lost. In June, when Islamic State fighters swept across northern Iraq from Syria, four Iraqi divisions disintegrated, accounting for roughly 30,000 troops, though it remains unclear how many were killed and how many retreated on their own or under orders. Some units abandoned their weapons and equipment to the advancing insurgents.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” President Obama said that the United States had been surprised by the rapid advances of the Islamic State fighters and had overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi military to counter those attacks.Continue reading the main story
In the months since the initial advances, the jihadist victories have continued, further damaging the army’s reputation. One came last week near Ramadi, in Anbar Province, where about 150 soldiers were forced to flee their posts after running out of ammunition.
Even among those Iraqi soldiers who have answered the call to re-enlist, morale is low, and distrust between the rank-and-file and officers runs deep. Most of those interviewed said they were joining primarily because they badly needed the pay, not out of any sense of loyalty or desire to fight.
“We’re back for money; we’re poor,” said Faisal Kamal Qasim, 30, a soldier who had been with the Second Division at a base in Mosul when the Islamic State fighters seized the city. “We don’t know what else to do.”
Even before the militants’ offensive, rampant corruption and sectarianism had weakened the army.
“Sunnis are pulling one way, Shiites are pulling the other, and when it breaks, nobody is taking responsibility,” said Capt. Hemin Kanabi, who has been overseeing the recruitment process in Qush Tapa. “There should be a change of some of the commanders. Otherwise, the same failures will occur.”
Some who abandoned their units have chosen instead to join Shiite militias. While the militias have often worked alongside the army and have been critical to the fight, they are feared by many Sunnis, posing political problems for the government as it tries to persuade Sunnis to reject the Islamic State group.
When asked how the military planned to reconstitute the fractured divisions in the face of such obvious obstacles, a brigadier general from the Defense Ministry in Baghdad who was observing the registration process in Qush Tapa this month mulled the question.
After a few moments, he smiled and said, “I don’t know.” (He did not want to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.)
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this month that of the 50 Iraqi brigades the United States military had assessed, 26 were deemed to be “reputable partners.”
“They seem to have a certain cohesion and a commitment to the central government,” General Dempsey said. The remainder, he said, had problems with “infiltration and leadership and sectarianism.”
Still, even many of the stronger Iraqi units required training and re-equipping before they would be ready to mount a major counteroffensive against Islamic State militants.
And beyond rebuilding the army, Iraqi commanders are wrestling with a dizzying array of challenges, including questions about the readiness of the other national armed services; the possible incorporation of Shiite and Sunni militias into the government forces; the relationship between the Kurdish pesh merga and the central government; and the plan to form national guard units.
“Of course, nobody knows what’s going to happen,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Nobody knows what’s going to work.”
The Iraqi Army’s central command issued the call for re-enlistments by text message on Sept. 12, officials and soldiers said. Recipients of the messages then spread the news by word of mouth, calling other members of their units.
Nobody is being asked to explain why he abandoned his unit. “We don’t ask such questions,” said Lt. Col. Hamid Suhail Ngeim, an official at the re-enlistment center in Baghdad.
Those who have registered in the north have been told to wait at home for instructions about when and where to report for duty. Some who have registered in the capital have already been assigned to units, Colonel Ngeim said.
But not everyone who wants to sign up has been able to do so, officials and soldiers said. Since the militants swept into Iraq, travel has become increasingly difficult, even within regions under government control, and many soldiers and officers said they had been unable to reach the recruitment centers to re-enlist.
In Kurdistan, the authorities have toughened their checkpoints at the border of the semiautonomous region and along its roads. Arabs, in particular, are being subjected to unusually harsh scrutiny, owing to Kurdish fears of Islamic State sympathizers and operatives among the Arab population.
During the first week of registration in Kurdistan this month, hundreds of Arabs trying to get to Qush Tapa were prevented from passing through a checkpoint between Kirkuk and Erbil, officials and enlistees said.
“It took me four days to get through,” said Raad Fawzi, 27, who was standing in line at the recruitment center on a recent morning.
Meanwhile, several Arab soldiers and officers who have ended up in a refugee camp north of Erbil said they did not dare travel to the recruitment center here for fear that they would not be able to re-enter the city and return to the camp because of difficulties at checkpoints.
Officials said they had deployed a mobile recruitment office to try to reach personnel in Kurdistan who could not travel to Qush Tapa.
Among those who showed up at the Kurdistan center on two recent mornings, some told dramatic stories of a military that withered at the first hint of menace. Of more than a dozen people interviewed, only one said he had ever fired a bullet against Islamic State militants.
“Just to think about those days, it’s a moment of death,” an Iraqi brigadier general said after registering at the recruitment center along with former staff members. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified as a critic of the military command, he said his unit was routed when his superiors ignored his calls for air support.
Most of the soldiers said they had retreated on orders from superiors. Others said there were never orders: Their commanders simply vanished and, lacking leadership, the soldiers followed.
“There was no ISIS, there was no fighting,” recalled Ahmed Mohammad, 30, who was a sergeant assigned to a unit of the 12th Division at a base near Kirkuk. “Our commander said, ‘Leave your weapons and go home.’ ”
“I don’t know how to describe the feeling when a commander is weak like that,” he said.
“Our leaders ran away,” added Mr. Fawzi, a soldier who had been posted on Hamreen Mountain near Baiji in Salahuddin Province. “We were feeling betrayed. We were feeling that the high commanders betrayed us and betrayed our country.”
During their retreat in June, Mr. Fawzi said, he and others in his unit shed their uniforms, and their weapons were impounded at a checkpoint by officers from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police forces.
Mr. Fawzi lived for the past three months with his wife, child, parents and brother in Kirkuk, and exhausted his savings. “I spent everything I had,” he said.Continue reading the main story