Forces: Iraq Comes Up Short

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July 18, 2011: At the end of this year, all U.S. Army troops are to be out of Iraq. This is not very popular with Iraqi Army leaders. That's because the Iraqi Army has been trained and equipped to deal with terrorists and local rebels, not a foreign invasion. For the moment, Iraq has to depend on unwritten assurances that the U.S. and Arab Gulf states would help deal with an Iranian invasion. Less likely is an invasion by the neighboring Arab states. And then there is Turkey. Arab states tend to avoid getting into warlike confrontations with the Turks.

Iran has long coveted what is now Iraq, and has, over the last few thousand years, actually controlled modern Iraq frequently. And that was before oil was discovered. Add to that the fact that most of the Shia religious shrines are in southern Iraq (Iran is the largest Shia state on the planet), and you can see why Iraq (even with 65 percent of its population being Shia) is nervous about Iran. Despite the common religion, Arabs do not like the Indo-European Iranians.

For the moment Iraq has an army in name only. There are only 14 divisions, and they are divisions largely in name only. The component brigades (usually four per division) are well trained and equipped for fighting irregulars, but not troops armed and trained for all-out war.

All of Iraq's neighbors have armies that are trained and equipped for war, as well as dealing with rebels and terrorists. What Iraq is missing is support units and trained commanders and staffs for combat divisions and corps (which control 2-5 divisions). Iraq also wants to eventually have 20 divisions, but has to fully equip the current 14 first. That means obtaining more tanks and artillery and lots of other specialized (and sometimes very expensive) equipment.

In the past year, Iraq has begun creating support units and expanded division headquarters. Each of the 14 combat divisions now has an engineering battalion, but the heavy (tank and mechanized) divisions need an engineering brigade (2-3 engineer battalions). There is only one heavy division (the 9th armored) at the moment, but that will change in the next decade. Each engineer battalion (called a regiment by the Iraqis) has a bridging company. Not all the current engineer battalions have bridging equipment.

There is a critical shortage of maintenance personnel, especially for vehicle maintenance. With the booming economy, comes many more civilian vehicles, and lots of jobs for skilled mechanics. Thus army finds about half its vehicles inoperable at any given time, because of the shortage of maintenance personnel. More can be trained, but once that soldier has a little experience, they leave the army as soon as their enlistment is up, to take a better paying civilian job.

Only one division has an intelligence battalion, which all divisions will eventually get once sufficient personnel and equipment are available. All divisions also have signal (communications) companies, and these are being expanded to signal battalions. This will take a few years, again because of the shortage of skilled personnel and communications equipment. Most divisions have four brigades, and a total strength of about 12,000-15,000 troops, but it will take five years, or more, to get them all the equipment and support troops they need to back up the effective combat units.

All divisions have a reconnaissance/commando company, and most divisions have already expanded these units to battalion size. The commando aspect is borrowed from the U.S. Marine Corps, which considers its recon troops elite. This includes "scout-snipers", another element the Iraqis are adopting for their recon battalions. Training of scout-snipers takes time, and Iraqis have accepted the fact that it's better to take the time to actually train these specialists, rather than (as many nations do) just call a unit something that it really isn't.

The Iraqis also lack supply and transportation units. Again, a big part of the problem is competition from the booming civilian market. There is also a shortage of medical personnel, military police and administrative personnel in general.

The Iraqi Army has come a long way since 2003, when the old, Sunni Arab dominated force was disbanded, and a new one, loyal to a democratic government, and led by newly recruited and trained officers, was built from scratch. Because of that, the Sunni Arabs loyal to Saddam (and Sunni Arab rule) fought a four year terror campaign. One response was the army forming the best troops into special "intervention" units. This resulted in an army organization consisting of one "Intervention Corps" and three other corps of lesser quality.

Iraq also lacks much in the way of an air force, especially in terms of air defense. The navy is little more than a coast guard. There is still lots of corruption. Equipment and loyalty can still be bought. But there is also an understanding that the bad-old-ways are a liability, not just an opportunity for personal enrichment. The Iraqi troops not only look and operate like their American counterparts, but are also beginning to think like them, at least when it comes to appreciating what makes an army really effective. It takes more time than many Iraqi generals believe they have.

 


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