Forces: The Military Traditions Of Iraq


February 28, 2009: Iraq currently has about 600,000 personnel in its security forces. Most of these (390,000) are in the national police, and work for the Interior Ministry. These are the local cops, and they vary enormously in quality. This quality issue all depends on the local leadership, and the degree of support the police get from the local population. There is also a more elite force, the National Police (43,000 better trained cops, including the Emergency Response Unit and other specialists). Lastly, the Interior Ministry has about 41,000 border guards.

The Ministry of defense has about a third of the security forces (220,000 troops). Most of these, about 196,000 troops, are in the army. There are another 20,000 in support forces, a woefully small number of logistics, maintenance and transportation troops. This is why Iraqi troops are often not ready for action, or literally run out of gas (food, bullets and etc) during operations. This has long been a problem with Arab armies, and Saddam's force was no exception. One part of the problem is that support forces are more easily plundered by corrupt officers, and there is reluctance to build up this aspect of the military. The generals would prefer to have more guys with guns.

The other services are tiny, with the air force and navy each having about 2,000 troops.

Beyond the two ministries, there are over 50,000 security guards, who watch over things like oil production facilities and power plants. Finally, there is the Counter-Terrorism Bureau (CTB). This is a small force of 4,200 personnel who specialize in identifying terrorists. The police and army usually make the arrests, although the CTB is armed and will sometimes pick up suspects. The CTB is the closest thing Iraq has to a "secret police," and many Iraqis fear that such a force may evolve into a larger secret police force, which most Arab countries tend to have. This has not happened yet, but the potential is there.

While the Iraqi Army grows in numbers, what counts more is the increasing number of trained, and combat experienced, sergeants (NCOs) and officers showing up. The Iraqi armed forces have long been regarded as the least effective force in the Middle East. Arab armies in general, for cultural and political reasons, are poor quality. Saddam had some decent units within his Republican Guard. But these men were all Sunni Arabs, selected more for their loyalty to Saddam, than for their military capabilities. Allowed to train, and given the best equipment available, the Republican Guard could be depended on to fight when ordered to. But against Western troops, they were quickly crushed. Thus it was necessary to start from scratch after 2003, when the Sunni Arab led army was disbanded.

After six years of effort, the Iraqi government has managed to produce a force of over 600,000 armed men. Saddam had at his disposal about twice as many. How do the two forces compare, now that the Iraqis have rebuilt their security forces?

Before Saddam was ousted in 2003, the active duty army consisted of about 250,000 troops. Some 40 percent of these were the elite Republican Guard, which was all Sunni Arab. In addition, nearly all the army officers, and most of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs. The Republican Guard, was, in effect, Saddam's "royal guard" and his main defense against a revolt by the army. The other 150,000 troops were mainly Sunni and Shia draftees, although there were Kurd and other minorities (Turks, and several Christian groups). At the time of the invasion, about 100,000 reservists (men who had done their conscript service recently) had been recalled to active duty. There were another 600,000 or so reservists who could have been called up. But many of these were Shia Arabs, and Saddam didn't want to see lots of armed Shia, in uniform or not. Still, the army, when fully mobilized, amounted to some 900,000 armed men.

The major difference between the current Iraqi army and Saddams force is training. The only troops Saddam allowed to get much training was the Republican Guard. The Shia Arab and Kurdish troops had fought for Saddam in the 1980s war with Iran, but quickly deserted when confronted by Coalition (mainly U.S.) troops in Kuwait in 1991. Same thing happened during the 2003 invasion. Some Republican Guard forces put up a fight, but most of the army fled. Saddam's army was a weak combat force, and even the Republican Guard was quickly broken. Note that the Iraqi army had a long history of shabby performance.

The core of Saddams armed forces were his secret police, intelligence and paramilitary organizations. All these amounted to about 100,000 armed men. Many were basically thugs in civilian clothes. But they could be depended on. Less reliable were the 100,000 or so national police and border guards. These could be bribed, although in wealthier areas, the cops received additional payments from local civilians, and maintained law and order.

In effect, Saddam built a reliable force of 200,000 Sunni Arab troops and secret police (from a total Sunni Arab population of five million). That's four percent of all Sunni Arabs, whose main job was not fighting foreign invaders, but keeping the other 80 percent of the population under control. Counting reserve officers and NCOs who also received payments, and the majority of civil service jobs that were reserved for Sunni Arabs, you can see how important Saddam was to Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Saddam provided jobs, or some regular income, for about half of all adult Sunni Arab males. These guys were not particularly well trained fighters, but they were loyal. Many were willing to fight for years in an effort to regain the good old days.

The current army has been much more carefully selected and trained. Most of the troops, especially the officers and NCOs, are Shia Arabs, with a large Kurdish minority. Many of these had never served as officers and had to be trained from scratch.

Over $20 billion has been spent to train Iraqi security forces so far, and a lot of it was wasted. But Saddam wasted a lot more. The corruption in Iraq is an ancient problem, and in the last few years of Saddam's rule, the stealing was rampant and actually getting worse. Many current soldiers and cops are simply carrying on in the "traditional" Iraqi way.

Among the many Iraqi traditions that are still practiced includes kicking back part of your salary and not having to show up for work (except in emergencies), so you can hold another job. It's also common for criminals or militiamen to join the army or police, and get two paychecks for one job. Double dipping is very popular, as is bribe taking and theft.

After World War II, occupied Japan and Germany had traditions of honest and efficient civil service to fall back on. Iraq has much less savory traditions, ones that ought to be eliminated. But traditions are not so easy to change, as everyone is discovering in Iraq.





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