The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH) - Defence Contents

4  The Iraqi Security Forces and Government

Iraqi Security Forces

39. The central role in the fight against DAESH is expected to be played by the Iraqi Security Forces. Their capacity is, therefore, the key to the campaign. Their performance in June 2014 was deeply troubling. When approximately 3,000 DAESH fighters attacked the Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul in June 2014, an estimated 30,000 soldiers deserted, leaving behind equipment which was then appropriated by DAESH. Since December 2013, the Iraqi Security Forces have lost much of the territory of Western Iraq to insurgents who—at least initially—they massively out-numbered, and out-gunned. Shashank Joshi summarised the weakness of the ISF in his evidence to the inquiry:

    In June, four entire divisions of the Iraqi Security Forces (out of 14) disintegrated in the face of the ISIL advance, despite the militants' relatively feeble numbers.

    A team of US advisers later concluded that just half of Iraq's 50 brigades were "reputable partners", with the remainder suffering from "infiltration and leadership and sectarianism".

    In mid-November, the Government replaced 36 commanders to "combat corruption", including the chief of ground forces, the chief of staff and commander of operations in Anbar Province. Even prior to the ISF's collapse in June 2014, they had struggled to recapture insurgent-held territory in Anbar Province from December 2013 onwards, notably in Fallujah.


    In late November, the Iraqi Security Forces was found to have been paying salaries to 50,000 non-existent soldiers, at the cost of around $318m per year.[63]

We met the new Iraqi Defence Minister, General Obeidi. He had established a good reputation in his short time in the role, and we saw him on his return from the frontline where, after heavy fighting, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Shia militia had cooperated in the successful recapture of much of Bayji.

40. However, the deep structural weakness in the Iraqi Security Forces—the corruption, the sectarianism, the loss of morale and reputation, and the poor leadership—are not things which we believe will be easy to overcome. Most fundamentally, even if the Iraqi Security Forces prove able to recapture Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah, there is little evidence, on the basis of their performance over the last two years, that they would be able to successfully win back the 'hearts and minds' of the local population, and thus bring a real end to the DAESH insurgency.

Shia Militia

41. The second component in the fight against DAESH are the dozens of Shia militia, who filled much of the military vacuum left by the disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces. The largest militias are invariably associated with Iran or with leading Iraqi political or religious figures. Some have been newly formed, but many existed prior to the DAESH advance.

42. The most prominent militias include Kata'ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization (both of which are directly sponsored by Iran); and Saraya al-Salam, (associated with Muqtada al-Sadr). Other prominent groups include Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Saraya al-Khorasani (again associated with Iran); Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, Liwa al-Shabab al-Risali (both indirectly associated with the Sadrist family); and the militias associated with the political parties the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda and Saraya Ashura) and the Da'wah party (Kata'ib al-Ghadab).[64]

43. It is estimated that there may be as many as a million Iraqi Shia militia fighters. The militias are not a homogenous bloc although there is evidence of them working together and with the Iraqi Security Forces. They have powerful political connections. The Badr militia are allied to a political party, whose leader, Hadi al-Ameri, is active on the frontline, and whose aide is now the interior Minister. They have also appeared publicly alongside Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, who appears to be funding, and equipping some of the militia. They appear to have had some military success. The militias helped the Iraqi Security Forces to break the siege of Amerli and to recapture Bayji. Militias were also responsible for recapturing the town of Jurf al-Sakher.[65]

44. The Shia militia are, however, an aggressively sectarian force, who have brutally cleared Sunni populations out of recaptured areas, inflamed Sunni suspicion of the Baghdad Government and become a useful propaganda tool for DAESH (who have shown films of militia atrocities in Fallujah). The militias too often appear to treat Sunni Muslims who have remained in DAESH territory as being enemy combatants.[66] It is reported that over 130,000 Iraqis, the majority of them Sunni Muslims, have been displaced in the fight against DAESH and, despite the stated intention of the Government that they should be able to return to their homes, many are unwilling or unable to.[67] In the areas which the Iraqi Security Forces and the militias have retaken from DAESH there are numerous reports of these militias kidnapping and murdering Sunni Muslims,[68] razing their houses in order to prevent them from returning to the areas they had fled in order to escape the DAESH onslaught[69] and summarily executing those it believes to be DAESH fighters.[70] Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have highlighted the abuses carried out by Shi'ite militias.[71]

45. On our visit to Baghdad we met tribal leaders from Jurf al-Sakher at a meeting who confirmed, in considerable detail, militia atrocities in the area. We heard how during the offensive against Jurf al-Sakher, civilians who fled the fighting, apparently holding white flags high to show surrender, were detained by militiamen. The women and children were separated from the men, of whom there is no record. The women and children are being detained by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) indefinitely despite not having been tried for any crimes. There are concerns that this is part of a wider campaign to punish and further subjugate Iraq's Sunni population.[72]

Kurdish Forces

46. The third element in the Iraqi forces are the Kurdish Peshmerga militia—a group with strong reputation, but whose performance was initially mixed and has since improved significantly. Following the capture of Mosul by DAESH fighters in June 2014, the Kurdish Regional Government sent their fighting force, the Peshmerga, into areas previously held by the ISF. When the DAESH forces advanced towards the Kurdistan region of Iraq in August 2014, the Peshmerga were forced out of minority areas around Sinjar, were driven back from the Mosul dam, and briefly lost control of a new frontline at Makhmour and Gwer, only twenty miles from their capital at Erbil. The Peshmerga managed to hold back DAESH fighters from Kirkuk but an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) were pushed into Kurdish territory. The launch of US air strikes helped to prevent DAESH advancing any further, and by January 2015, the Peshmerga had regained much of the territory they lost the previous August.

47. The Peshmerga attributed the success of DAESH, to their possession of Iraqi Security Forces equipment which had been abandoned in Mosul, including long-range artillery, tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles, as well as large supplies of ammunition—a far superior armoury to the Peshmerga who relied on older weapons, many appropriated from the Iraqi Security Forces following the 2003 invasion. [73]

48. On our visit to the Kurdistan region, we saw the current training taking place and spoke to both UK military personnel and Kurdish political and military figures. It was clear that, whilst the Peshmerga is an impressive fighting force, it faces a number of organisational challenges besides a lack of sophisticated weaponry. A significant number of the Peshmerga are allied to (and, it seems, are paid through) the two main political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), rather than the Kurdistan Regional Government. This has created problems with communication between brigades and has hindered the cohesion of the Peshmerga as a unified force. There are also concerns about corruption within the Peshmerga force with a large number of 'ghost soldiers' (that is, cash salaries that are paid to soldiers who do not exist). Moreover, we were told that at least a quarter of Peshmerga fighters were beyond retirement age and some are disabled.

49. When we met with the Minister of Peshmerga he told us that he and the Kurdish Regional Government were in control of the Peshmerga overall and the co-ordination of their supply, support and deployment. Varying claims were given to us by different groups about the numbers of Peshmerga employed and how many were deployable as fighters; beyond being 'reserve' forces. What is clear is there are larger numbers of people being paid than can be actively deployed. The figures of the total number of Peshmerga seem to be estimated as being between 150,000 and 160,000, including security forces and volunteers, with the actual frontline force being estimated at between 40,000 and 50,000. Roughly 40,000 Peshmerga are linked to the Ministry of Peshmerga (14 brigades) with the remainder linked to the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.

50. A number of these issues are being addressed through the reform of the Peshmerga—the Kurdish Regional Parliament passed a law in July 2014 which set the Minister of Peshmerga a six month deadline to institute reforms (although these have yet to be fully implemented). It was notably the division of the Peshmerga along political lines which it is claimed had prevented the US from carrying out extensive training programmes with its forces prior to the 2011 departure of US soldiers from Iraq.[74]

51. We visited the Central Joint Operations Centre (CJOC) in Erbil, including the UK training personnel there, and saw how air strikes in support of Peshmerga fighters and the supply of weaponry have helped the Peshmerga to regain much of the territory which they had lost to DAESH. Significantly, they have captured one of the main roads between Mosul and the Syrian border which had acted as a major supply route for DAESH.[75] The Foreign Affairs Committee has highlighted its concerns that the Kurdish Regional Government would not expect the Peshmerga to work with the Iraqi Security Forces in areas that it did not consider to be Iraqi Kurdistan.[76] However, representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government have suggested that it might ultimately be in a position to participate in an offensive to re-take Mosul from DAESH provided that it had Iraqi Security Forces (and Sunni fighters) alongside them in order to ensure the success of such an operation.[77] Whilst we recognise the significance of the Kurdish Regional Government's concern about Mosul, we question their capability to recapture non-Kurdish areas of Iraq.

52. As DAESH fighters have failed to exploit their advance, they have employed different tactics, notably the laying of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in towns they have retreated from.[78] We were told that 60% of injuries caused to the Peshmerga were as a result of IEDs and that counter IED training and equipment would be welcome, as would training in the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield. These are skills which were honed by UK troops in Afghanistan and are considered to be an area of UK expertise. In addition to military support in counter IED, it is clear there is a need for mine and IED clearance in areas of former conflict. Whilst in Erbil, we met with the NGO Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and discussed the ways in which such support might be provided to complement the military and other UK Government support to the Kurdistan Regional Government. MAG highlighted that many of the areas that had been won back from DAESH would need to be cleared of unexploded ordinances before the IDPs could return. The return of IDPs is seen as vital to retaining the land and alleviating pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government. We were told that such a programme would cost an estimated £2 million with the opportunity for the NGO to train security and civil defence forces on IED awareness and search.

The National Guard

53. Many in Baghdad confidently promoted the idea of a 'National Guard' as the key to winning Sunni tribes over to the fight against DAESH. The model appeared to be based on the experience of the Sunni Awakening in 2007—which employed Sunni tribes to fight Al Qaeda—but, the difference being, as we heard in Iraq, that, in the new National Guard, money would not be going through the tribal chiefs. All the weapons would be accounted for, all the fighters carefully documented, and the units would be loyal to the Iraqi State.

54. A number of challenges were identified. First, Shashank Joshi questioned whether Sunni tribes would again trust the Iraqi Government after it reneged on commitments given to the Sunni Awakening during the previous surge.[79] Second, it appeared from discussions with senior Iraqi officials that the National Guard appeared to be very different in scale and objectives from the Sunni Awakening. It was emphasised that, if there were to be a National Guard, they would not be on anything approaching the scale of the Sunni Awakening (perhaps 5,000 for Anbar province, rather than 100,000 people); and that many of the places would be given to the Shia militia—or 'patriotic volunteer groups'—as a way of ensuring regular government funding for the militia. If the National Guard concept were to be implemented, the cost of the programme was estimated to be many hundreds of millions of dollars a year for units which were neither police nor army, and would have an uncertain function after the insurgency. In a country already struggling for money, it seemed difficult to believe these units would be long continued—and if they were disbanded there seemed a serious possibility of a repeat of the problems of bitter Sunni Awakening members re-joining the insurgency.

55. At the time of our visit only 270 men had been recruited into a prototype of the National Guard in the Anbar region. There seemed to be considerable problems in getting the Iraqi National Security Adviser to guarantee salaries, or to get the Ministry of Defence to issue weapons. The Baghdad Government appeared less enthused about the idea of the National Guard units than its foreign backers. The timetable for passing a law authorising the National Guards has been repeatedly delayed.[80]

The Iraqi Prime Minister and State

56. In Baghdad a key reason for optimism was faith in the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. He was seen as a far more inclusive, effective, and legitimate leader than his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. He had surpassed expectations by agreeing a generous oil and budget deal with the Kurds, thus lessening, for the moment, tensions with the Kurds.

57. But the Prime Minister is only one man, and the highly limited capacity of the Iraqi state is unlikely to be transformed simply by removing Mr al-Maliki, and replacing him with Mr al-Abadi. The drop in oil prices has dramatically eroded the resources of the Baghdad Government at its time of greatest need. Corruption is so deeply embedded in every crevice of the Iraqi state and military that its elimination would seem to be a task of decades, and certainly not an immediate solution to the problem posed by DAESH.

58. Professor Toby Dodge emphasised that the Iraqi Government was unpopular across the whole of the country. He suggested that this unpopularity was a result of the abject failure of the political system set up since 2003 and called for the reformation of that political system to rebuild trust in all the communities:

    We can look at the Kurdish Regional Government and the people they represent and say that they have turned their back, or sought to turn their back, on Baghdad, for very good reasons. Then we can look at the revolt through 2014 in the Sunni majority areas as something similar. But then if we go down into the south and look at the Shia majority population, there are no great fans of the Government there. The Government, because of its corruption, has squandered its oil wealth and undermined the institutional capacity of the state and is broadly unpopular across the whole of the country. It just does not have the calibre of political parties or politicians or state institutions to deliver those resources in a meaningful way to any of the population and tie them back into the state on the basis of citizenship.[81]

59. Mr al-Maliki clearly exacerbated the problems in Iraq, but his removal will not in itself overcome them. Although he is now blamed for many of the problems, he was initially a popular partner of the international coalition, credited with leading 'the charge of the knights' in Basra, against the 'Mahdi Army' militia. The US supported his taking over in a disputed election in 2010,[82] and he won by a large majority in an internationally acclaimed election in 2014. His personal following was much greater than Mr al Abadi's (for example Mr al-Maliki received 700,000 'write-in' votes in the last election, when Mr al-Abadi received almost none).[83] Whatever the failings of Mr al-Maliki, if the entire strategy of counter-insurgency and state-building, conducted over so much time and at so much cost, was unable to survive the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iraq (whom the US knew well and had worked with for years) then Iraq remains remarkably fragile.


60. Mr Al-Abadi, we were also told in Baghdad, would be re-engaging the Sunni minority through a number of initiatives:

·  the de-centralisation of power to the provinces;

·  the repeal of legislation including de-Ba'athification and counter-terrorism law (particularly a 2004 Counter-Terrorism law very focused on Sunni terrorism);

·  the release of political prisoners; and

·  the creation of a National Guard.

61. Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary for Defence, cited the appointment of a Sunni Defence Minister, the proposed creation of a National Guard and the replacement of 36 senior commanders in the Iraqi Security Forces, including the integration of senior Sunni leaders, as proof that the Iraqi central Government was becoming more inclusive.[84] These measures, it was hoped, would consolidate Sunni support for the Baghdad state, help to ensure that the Sunni local population would rise up against DAESH, and effectively welcome Iraqi troops as liberators. This was echoed by the UK Secretary of State for Defence's statement that

    the biggest difference between now and 2007 is that we now have a genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq, who represent both Shia and Sunni, and, indeed, Kurdish elements in Iraq.[85]

62. There is no doubt that there is movement in the direction of inclusiveness, as the appointment of a new, more inclusive, Cabinet and the replacement of senior Commanders in the Iraqi Security Force demonstrates. But, in other meetings, it became clear that new measures are yet to be given a clear timetable and that there is significant opposition to these inclusive measures from the Shia political parties (and their Iranian supporters). There have been reports that the legislation to create the National Guard is unlikely to pass through the Iraqi Parliament[86] and that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, does not believe that the leaders of Sunni tribes in Anbar province are trustworthy.[87]

63. Perhaps more importantly, the depth of suspicion that now exists between the communities following a civil war—which led to perhaps 50,000 deaths,[88] followed by the recent experience of the surge, and the perceived betrayal by Mr al-Maliki—will be very difficult to overcome simply through new legislation. The Sunni population in the DAESH areas remain deeply suspicious of Kurds, the Shia-dominated Baghdad Government, and, most significantly, of the Shi'ite militias who are doing much of the fighting. Militias have the freedom to act with near-impunity and many are feared not just by Sunnis but by Kurds and Shi'ites too.[89] Even if the Iraqi state were nominally able to recapture cities like Mosul and Fallujah, it would struggle to secure those cities, let alone rebuild them, and win back the trust of the local population. If they fail to rebuild, DAESH will only re-emerge in a new form.


64. Meanwhile, the insurgents continue to be surprisingly resilient: in terms of propaganda, international recruitment, and local finance. They are able to exploit an open border for safe haven in Syria. They have been able to recruit many people, keen to oppose the brutality of the Assad regime, and others who perceive Baghdad as an Iranian stooge. They have established powerful local sources of funding (including property portfolios, and utility taxes) and are not primarily dependant on foreign grants, or even the sale of oil (which they continue to smuggle with some success through Syria). They have proved themselves adept in the use of social media, sending 90,000 messages a day. In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Dr Thomas Hegghammer stated that:

    Syria is the most socially mediated conflict in history and there is an enormous amount of audio-visual documentation produced by rebels themselves, documenting the things they do […] social media affects recruitment simply by linking people up—Facebook, for example. When someone travels to Syria and posts pictures from there and his friends see those pictures, those friends are more likely to be inspired to go. That is not really propaganda; that is just regular information conveyed through online social media that then facilitates recruitment.[90]

65. Regional players including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey continue to be deeply suspicious of or even hostile towards each other and seem to be perpetuating in Syria, a proxy war. Turkey has been reluctant to turn against DAESH until there is a campaign against Bashar al-Assad. Joost Hilterman told us that for many Sunnis, DAESH are seen as the lesser of two evils, compared to the Baghdad Government. The Sunni tribes in Iraq have been marginalised since 2003 and, even when efforts were made to integrate them, they have not been followed through. He gave us the example of the treatment of Sunni fighters who took part in the 'surge,'

    Efforts to bring them back into the political game have not been made in good faith, with the actual absorption of Sunni elements into the Iraqi security forces not having taken place and salaries not paid. Essentially, there has been a continuation of the shutting out through the surge and until June of this year when in many cases they chose the side of Islamic State. To bring them back out is the game and that is a long-term political game and cannot be done fast.[91]

66. The sense of grievance is further compounded by the perception that the current Iraqi regime is overly close to the Iranian Government. Aymann Jawad al-Tamimi told us that a number of influential Sunni insurgent groups had issued statements following the DAESH advance which suggested that:

    [T]here is no point in trying to work within the political system, because it is discriminatory against Sunnis and it is a 'Safavid' Government, meaning that they see it as just a stooge of Iran. The result of that is that any scheme that the Government tries to issue now in the hopes of winning over Sunnis to form a wider pushback against Islamic State, analogous to the Sahwa of 2007 onwards, is derided as a mere lackey project for the Safavid Government.[92]

These problems are only exacerbated by the atrocities committed by the Shia militia. Other witnesses have consistently emphasised that DAESH cannot be destroyed through military means alone. Professor Sir Adam Roberts told us:

    It is very, very rare in dealing with terrorist movements that they be completely annihilated. In fact, I think it never happens. The interesting question is how such movements are defeated or run out of steam, absent that possibly desired goal of complete annihilation. They do; they regularly suffer from fission, fusion and exhaustion. We have to envisage a richer array of possibilities than complete annihilation.[93]

67. Given the deep polarisation and structural weaknesses of the Iraqi State, we wonder whether containment and suppression of DAESH would not be a more realistic goal than total elimination.

63   Shashank Joshi (ISI0021) para 6 Back

64   How Iraq Became a Proxy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, The Tower, December 2014  Back

65   Shiite Militias Win Bloody Battles in Iraq, Show No Mercy, The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 2014  Back

66   The Middle Eastern impasses (1): The problems of the Shias in responding, Foreign Policy, 7 January 2015  Back

67   Shi'ite militias expand influence, redraw map in central Iraq, Reuters, 31 December 2014  Back

68   Shiite Militias Pose Challenge for U.S. in Iraq, The New York Times, 16 September 2014; Unsavoury allies: The growing power of Shia militias in Iraq and Syria poses a tricky problem, The Economist, 6 September 2014  Back

69   The Gangs of Iraq, Foreign Policy, 3 November 2014  Back

70   Shiite Militias Win Bloody Battles in Iraq, Show No Mercy, The Wall Street Journal, 5 December 2014 Back

71   Amnesty International, Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq, October 2014; Human Rights Watch, For Iraq's Sunnis, Sectarian Militias Pose an Extra Threat, 24 October 2014  Back

72   Shi'ite militias expand influence, redraw map in central Iraq, Reuters, 31 December 2014 Back

73   Outgunned and untested for years, Kurdish Peshmerga struggle, Reuters, 13 August 2014  Back

74   Kurdish peshmerga divisions hamper war effort, Al-Monitor, 13 January 2015  Back

75   Kurdish offensive against ISIL gains momentum, Al-Jazeera, 26 December 2014  Back

76   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2014-15, UK Government policy on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, HC 564, Para 101 Back

77   Iraqi Kurds Retake Territory; Seek More Help to Free Mosul, Voice of America, 7 January 2015  Back

78   Ambushes, Mines And Booby Traps: ISIS Militants Change Tack, NPR, 21 October 2014  Back

79   Shashank Joshi (ISI0021) para 16 Back

80   U.S.-backed Plan for Iraqi National Guard Falters, The Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2014  Back

81   Q1 Back

82   Why we stuck with Maliki - and lost Iraq, The Washington Post, 3 July 2014  Back

83   How Maliki Broke Iraq, Politico, 13 August 2014  Back

84   US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Statement on the Administration's Strategy and Military Campaign Against ISIL Before the House Armed Services Committee, 13 November 2014 Back

85   HC Deb, 12 Jan 2015, col. 591 Back

86   U.S.-backed Plan for Iraqi National Guard Falters, The Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2014 Back

87   U.S. Fears New Iraqi Prime Minister Isn't Serious About Sunni Outreach, Foreign Policy, 15 December 2014  Back

88   Who is responsible for Iraq's sectarian violence?, Open Democracy, 7 June 2013  Back

89   Their nation in pieces, Iraqis ponder what comes next, Reuters, 29 December 2014  Back

90   Home Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2013-14, Counter-terrorism HC 231, Para 121 Back

91   Q1 Back

92   Q1 Back

93   Q207 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 5 February 2015