Baghdad, Iraq – Repeated failures by Iraq’s army commanders in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as a high casualty rate among soldiers have increased pressure on Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi to take action.
On September 23, Abbadi forcibly retired two of his army generals and revoked the office of the armed forces’ commander-in-chief in a move widely seen as an attempt to remedy the army’s successive losses in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces.
Last week, at least 300 Iraqi soldiers were killed or captured in the town of Saqlawiyah, west of Baghdad. They were besieged by ISIL fighters as well as anti-government Sunni tribes on September 16 for five days.
Ali, an army officer who survived the siege, told Al Jazeera: “They were going without reinforcements or air cover.”
“When we withdrew from our sites in Saqlawiyah, the bodies of soldiers and burned military vehicles were everywhere. We could not evacuate them as the priority was to evacuate the wounded soldiers,” he added.
Over the phone from al-Tariq military base in northern Baghdad, Ali added that military vehicles filled with ISIL fighters raided army headquarters in Saqlawiyah on the fifth day of the siege. He added that dozens of soldiers were killed due to suicide attacks and the use of chlorine gas which raised the number of casualties among soldiers.
Ali and his field commanders had been already ordered, earlier that day, to withdraw from Saqlawiyah to the nearest military base al-Mazraah in northern Fallujah.
“Our commands [in the back lines] kept telling us, throughout that day, that reinforcement was on its way and they said the roads [between Saqlawiyah and al-Mazraa base near Fallujah] were secured. We were scared, tired, exhausted and waiting for a miracle to get us out of that hell,” he said. “I cannot say how many [ISIL fighters] there were, but I believe their number was no less than 1,000 as they kept coming from all sides.”
kept telling us throughout that day that reinforcement was on its way and they said the roads [between Saqlawiyah and al-Mazraa base near Fallujah] were secured. We were scared, tired, exhausted and waiting for a miracle to get us out of that hell.”]
The troops that abandoned the battleground had to drive around 15km through “hostile environment”, as one army officer described it.
“We had no artillery shelling or air force back up and the reinforcement troops which was sent to break the siege were terminated,” said Mohammed, another officer who survived the siege.
Saqlawiyah fighters and its allies have gained control over much of northern and western Iraq as well as eastern parts in neighbouring Syria. The United States began air strikes on ISIL targets in Iraq last August. On September 23, supported by a number of Arab and European partners, the US expanded its air strikes to include targets in Syria.
“What happened in Saqlawiyah was a disaster. These forces were trapped and suffered a significant shortfall in equipment and food. Their commands in the back lines did not deal with the situation seriously,” said a senior security official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The roads that [the troops] used to withdraw were not secured as there were many boobytraps,” the official said. Updated security information was not passed on to the soldiers, he added.
But according to political observers, Abbadi has inherited a military institution that is “plagued by corruption and dominated by figures appointed by his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, based on political loyalties rather than merit,” said Abdulwahid Tuama, an independent political analyst.
One day after the Saqlawiya attack and in a move that was viewed as purging the army of the former premier’s men, Abbadi put to retirement two top army commanders, Lieutenant General Aboud Qanbar, the deputy of the army chief of staff and Lieutenant General Ali Gaidan, the commander of the ground forces.
The commanders came under heavy criticism by Iraqi lawmakers for the collapse of the army since June. Ministry of Defence officials, however, down played the move saying the two men had reached retirement age.
Meanwhile, Abbadi also revoked the office of the chief of the armed forces, created by the US after the 2003 invasion. The position, according to security officials, was used by Maliki to consolidate his power over various posts in both interior and defence ministries, which were managed by proxies during the last four years.
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“There is a great imbalance in the security system. The global ‘war against terrorism’ in Iraq and Syria has started and most of the security decisions makers do not exist,” said Sharwan al-Waali, the former Iraqi minister of national security.
“The interior and defence ministries, the national security department, the national intelligence service were run by acting officials,” he added.
According to the Iraqi constitution, such positions have to be voted on by the parliament. To avoid doing so, Maliki, according to security officials, appointed his people to occupy these post as acting officials.
Waali added that the posts of the command of the ground armed forces, the deputy of army chief of staff (the two posts which were occupied by Qanbar and Gaidan) as well as several other military posts remain vacant at present.
Last week, US officials said US forces may be needed on the ground alongside Iraqi troops to fight ISIL.
General Martin Dempsey, the U.S military’s top officer, told the US Congress in a televised session that US forces may be needed on the ground alongside Iraqi troops to fight ISIL. This came shortly after Abbadi told reporters, in a televised press conference, that foreign troops were not wanted on the ground.
Abbadi has no authority to bring in foreign forces. Such a decision would have to be approved by the parliament.
Shia political parties and fighters, which have backed the Iraqi security forces in halting ISIL’s advance towards Baghdad since June, have publicly threatened to abandon their positions on the front lines across the country if US ground forces were to enter Iraq.
Recently, in TV interviews, press conferences and written statements, Hadi al-Amiri, head of Badr organisation; Qais al-Khazaali, the commander of Asaib ahl al-Haq; Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist movement; and senior leaders of Kattaib Hezbollah-Iraq, expressed their opposition to the deployment of any foreign troops on the ground in Iraq.
Abbadi does not have many options, as observers say, but to accelerate the process of appointing security ministers, fill vacant security posts and revise the performance of army commands, said Tuama.
“Abbadi has no authority to bring in foreign forces. Such a decision would have to be approved by the parliament,” he added.
“Now, most of the Iraqi Shia and Sunni parties are totally against the presence of these troops on Iraqi territory and it would be too difficult to get them to endorse this decision at the moment,” Tuama said.