Iraqi SOF (Special Operation Forces) are the new role models for young men in Iraq. This is because in May Iraq revealed that during the eight month battle to drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of Mosul the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) cleared 54 percent of the 110 square kilometers that was fought over. This was no surprise to most Iraqis who noted that ISOF personnel were present in most of the media video and pictures showing the fighting, especially coverage of newly liberated parts of the city. Then there were online messages from ISOF members or, more frequently, friends of family. The government soon admitted the obvious, that the ISOF were assigned to the most difficult tasks in the battle despite the fact that the total strength of the ISOF is about 20,000 and at least a quarter of them were fighting in Mosul at any given time. The total size of the attack forces was about 100,000 troops but only about a quarter of those came under fire and wherever the defenders were numerous and determined, that’s where you would usually find SOF troops called in to deal with it.
Casualty data was not released during the fighting but it appears the ISOF took heavy casualties (over a thousand dead and many more wounded). Most of the casualties were wounds that were not disabling and there were cases of ISOF operators checking themselves out of the hospital and making their way back to their units before their wounds were fully healed. That in itself is a sign of good morale and the word got around. The ISOF men in Mosul (and earlier in Anbar and elsewhere) became national heroes even though their names and pictures were rarely released to protect them from Islamic terrorist reprisals.
The heavy casualty rate among the ISOF was no secret and the military would sometimes admit (and military analysts local and foreign confirmed) that the battle took longer in part to minimize civilian and ISOF casualties. Nevertheless ISOF appears to have lost several thousand troops to disabling injuries (mainly) and death in action. ISOF needs to replace those losses and recently ISOF conducted a three day online recruiting campaign. The response was much heavier than expected, with more than 300,000 applications posted before the campaign ended. Most of those who pass the various levels of physical, mental, psychological and background check screening will enter the Special Operations Academy for 23 weeks of intense basic and advanced training, which normally over a third of recruits fail. At the end of that training there is a large field training exercise that eliminates more recruits (who are usually offered jobs in other areas of the military of police). ISOF expects the next year or so will see even higher quality new operators coming out of the academy.
The Special Operations Academy graduates 4,500 operators a year and all the training is done by Iraqi veterans. There are still American and foreign special operations troops there to advise the Special Operations Academy staff and Jordan provides specialist training in its own special operations training centers. But the trainers are basically experienced ISOF operators passing on what they know to new recruits.
ISOF expects to be fighting ISIL and other Islamic terror groups for another year or more. Then there is the threat from Iran, which was allowed to arm, train and lead Shia militias that now contain over 40,000 fighters, many of them seen as more loyal to Iran than Iraq. That remains to be seen, and if that does turn out to be a problem the loyalty and capabilities of ISOF will be a deciding factor.
The ISOF did note that the recruiting drive brought in candidates from all minorities, including Kurds and Christians, along with more Sunni Arabs. This is significant because most military units tend to be all one group (Shia, Sunni, Kurd and so on) or another. Until now that tended to produce less effective troops led by corrupt officers. That is not the case with ISOF. In the past that meant these partisan military units were easy recruit for a military takeover or rebellion. But the universal appeal of the ISOF, as shown by the varied backgrounds of the new ISOF recruits is a positive sign that Iraq won’t slide into another ethnic/religious war.