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Poor governance and corruption among obstacles facing Iraqi military

When ISIS militants swept across Iraq this summer, seizing the key cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah, they appeared to do so with hardly any opposition from the Iraqi army. There were stories of soldiers abandoning their posts and equipment and fleeing as militants advanced. Meanwhile, the government in Baghdad remained in a post-election political deadlock for weeks, even as the country burned. The clear weakness of the army and the power vacuum left as politicians tried and failed to form a government, even at such a time of crisis, made the rise of ISIS appear inevitable. Many analysts spoke of a partition of Iraq as the only realistic solution, while others pointed out that without some form of western military intervention, there was very little chance of ISIS being pushed back.

Is that situation beginning to improve? This week, the Iraqi army recaptured the Jurf Al-Sakhr area south of Baghdad, which is visited by thousands of Shia pilgrims going to the nearby shrine city of Karbala. It also made gains in areas north of the capital and held off an assault by ISIS in the city of Ramadi. Security forces, backed by local tribesmen, managed to protect government buildings. This city is one of the last important urban areas in Anbar province that is still under government control. Other parts of Anbar, which borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and the Baghdad governorate, have been under ISIS control for months. "If we lose Anbar, that means we will lose Iraq," the city's governor, Ahmed al-Dulaimi, warned on television. It is certainly a large and strategically important area. The government has retained Ramadi for now, but not necessarily forever; this was not the first ISIS assault on the city, and will not be the last.

Iraq's parliament approved Haider Al-Abadi as the country's new prime minister in September, after mounting international and domestic pressure led the divisive incumbent Nouri Al-Maliki to step aside, after weeks of resisting. Al-Abadi has a big task in front of him; not only has he taken office at a time of grave national crisis, but to have any hope of bringing the country out of it, he must also attempt to build bridges between the Shia majority (of which he is a member) and the Sunni and Kurdish populations. This is no small task; during his dictatorship, Saddam Hussein oppressed Shia and Kurds brutally, but after he was ousted and majority rule restored, Sunnis complained of unfair treatment and marginalisation by the Shia government.

The story of the current crisis in Iraq is partly one of regional tension – an inevitable overspill from the long and brutal civil war in Syria – as well as one of poor governance and corruption. According to Transparency International, Iraq has the most corrupt government in the Middle East, described as a hybrid between authoritarian rule and flawed democracy. By the time ISIS began its land grab in Iraq, the military – which had funds poured into it by the US following the 2003 invasion – had shrunk in numbers after years of corruption and absenteeism. According to expert estimates, active Iraqi combat forces only numbered about 85,000 when ISIS seized Mosul, down from 400,000 under US supervision. American officials blame Al-Maliki for this decline; he reportedly appointed commanders on the basis of their sectarian background, which undermined loyalty and morale. Corrupt practices by the leadership were also widespread, by adding "ghost soldiers" to payrolls, for example, and continuing to collect payment for dead men. Not only did this result in military units with insufficient staff, it also meant that it was very difficult to assess the size and strength of the security forces.

Now, the Iraqi government has announced that it will triple its defence budget to defeat ISIS, while the US has plans to train soldiers. American officials want to see Kurdish Pashmerga forces and Sunni militias integrated into the national army, but that is ambitious, given deep sectarian tension, not to mention the difficulty of getting such a proposal through the divided Iraqi parliament. The state of the military and government is certainly improving (indeed, it would be difficult for things to get worse), but there remain huge obstacles to overcome.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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