After a year of strenuous and expensive effort the American military advisors and trainers sent to Iraq to retrain and reform the Iraqi Army have admitted that a similar Iranian effort has crippled the U.S. plan to expand the Iraqi army and improve the quality of officers and troops. The basic problem was that most men the army wanted to recruit referred to join one of the Shia militias organized and trained by Iranians. It was all a matter of trust. Potential Shia recruits (in a country where Shia are over 60 percent of the population) did not believe the Iraqi Army could be reformed and rebuilt and felt the paramilitary Shia militias would be better led and more effective even though the Iraqi Army had better weapons and was more likely to get American air support. American military leaders were disappointed, but not surprised. Unfortunately many of the Shia militias are led by men known to have been members of pro-Iran militias that, before 2008, attacked American troops as well as Sunni Islamic terrorists. These militias were disbanded by 2010 but after 2014 were allowed to reform again.
What triggered the current American training effort in Iraq was the ISIL offensive in mid-2014 that took control of most of western Iraq (Anbar province) and the northwestern city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. By the end of 2014 Iraq had asked the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi armed forces and called in Iran to revive the Shia militias. Then came the rapid and unexpected loss of Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province) in May 2015 by a much smaller force (government troops outnumbered nearby ISIL gunmen by ten to one).
This brought forth accusations by the U.S. and other Western governments that Iraqis did not have the will to fight. That was not true and the real problem, as it has always been, is leadership. As the old saying goes, “there are no bad troops, only bad officers.” In late 2014 the U.S. reported that most of the troops they trained before they left in 2011 had since left the military and many of the replacements were poorly trained (and even more poorly led) by corrupt Iraqi officers appointed by the recently (April 2014) replaced Maliki government. The U.S. believed that Iraq needed at least 80,000 trained and well led troops to deal with ISIL. American military evaluation teams were sent to Iraq in August 2014 to assess how much of the Iraqi Army was salvageable. It was discovered that only 52 percent of the 50 Iraqi combat brigades were worth training and supporting in the short run. The other 24 brigades had been rendered ineffective by Shia politics and officers who were too poorly trained, experienced or dedicated to hold these units together in heavy combat. The basic problem was bad officers, in particular officers more interested in politics and getting rich (via corrupt practices) than running an efficient army. This is not a new or unique problem in the Iraqi Army. Since 2011 the Shia politicians running the government chose politically reliable Shia officers over those who were merely competent at their jobs. That led to the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a mid-2014 ISIL offensive. That should not have happened, but it did and will again unless the Iraqis put more emphasis on competence than political loyalty when selecting military officers. There was a similar pattern in the police, although some SWAT units and paramilitary police units (mainly counter-terror units) maintained their edge, but most were ruined by corrupt leadership. So while most Iraqis were angry with the foreigner accusations that Iraqis lacked the will to fight, they had to admit that too many Iraqi officers lacked the ability to lead.