Forces: The New Iraqi Army in Early 2006


March 13, 2006: The Iraqi army now consists of about 140,000 troops. They are organized into 113 combat battalions (91 infantry battalions, 5 mechanized infantry battalions, 4 armored battalions, 1 special-duty security battalion and twelve special intervention force battalions.) The infantry and armor battalions are organized into nine divisions. There are also four special intervention force brigades (each with three battalions.)

Support forces include 9 motor transportation regiments, 3 mechanized combat service-support battalions and 10 base support units. There are not enough support units, and many more will be organized this year.

Before the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi army had about 420,000 troops (a quarter of them reservists, to be called up in wartime.) Most of the officers, and a disproportionate number of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs, selected mainly for their loyalty to Saddam Hussein. There were thousands of intelligence personnel assigned to keeping an eye on the army, for any signs of disloyalty. Most of the enlisted troops were Shia Arabs, although a large minority were Sunni Arabs. There were also some Kurds, Christians and some other minorities.

The current Iraqi army had a hard time rebuilding its officer corps, because most of the experienced officers available were Sunni Arabs who, until recently, were reluctant to join because of terrorist threats against them. The terrorists were most active in Sunni Arab neighborhoods. But the new government, dominated by the Kurds and Shia Arabs (who comprise 80 percent of the population) wanted their people to comprise most of the officer corps. That required a lot of training, and years of experience for the senior commanders. There were some Kurdish and Shia Arab officers available, but most of these had served in low ranking jobs, and you needed experienced colonels as well as lieutenants. So over a year of intensive officer training was required before battalions could be organized. Many Shia Arab and Kurd NCOs were promoted to officer rank, but even these needed some formal training. The biggest problem with getting Iraqi battalions capable of independent operations, is the shortage of capable officers. Most civilians simply cannot comprehend how important training and experience is when you are commanding a battalion in combat.

By 2005, many more former Sunni Arab officers were willing to rejoin the army. That's because the terrorists had been run out of many Sunni Arab areas. But there was still the loyalty problem. Doing background checks was not easy, and many of the rehired Sunni Arab officers proved to be unreliable or untrustworthy. However, the majority did well, and are providing a lot of the senior leadership. But a new crop of Kurdish and Shia Arab officers are rapidly moving up the ranks. These are combat proven men, and that means a lot. During World War II, there were many men in their twenties who ended the war commanding battalions and brigades.

There are also problems with politically connected, but incompetent, officers being kept in their positions. Kurdish and Shia Arab politicians all want army officers they can personally depend on. This was what made Saddam's army so inefficient, and the current Iraqi political leadership had to be constantly reminded of that. But politicians have to worry about staying in power, and in Iraq, that has traditionally been accomplished by having a lot of loyal army officers to back you up.

American advisors are assigned to all Iraqi units. They not only give advice, but also constantly grade these units. Currently, about half the combat units are considered capable of operating on their own. The rest are either still training, or mainly being used for guard duty (checkpoints, infrastructure, oil facilities, government buildings). The guard duty is a good way to train the troops, and their officers. Those units that can operate on their own (with American backup and air support), require officers who can adequately supervise their troops and react effectively to rapidly changing situations. The most taxing job is patrolling and sweeps. This is when you can encounter unexpected opposition, and the officers and NCOs have to be able to handle it.

Most of the weapons are either Saddam era, or Russian stuff (often from Eastern Europe) donated after 2003. New American equipment includes radios and other electronic equipment, body armor, uniforms, trucks and medical gear. Getting new equipment and weapons is complicated by problems with corruption in the Defense Ministry. Old habits die hard.

The new army has proved competent in combat, and Iraqi troops who served in the old army have noticed the difference. The Iraqi troops admire the American, and other Western troops. Seeing these foreign troops operate has made an impression. The foreign trainers have demonstrated that the superiority of Western troops is not some kind of magic, but the result of good training and leadership. Some Iraqi units have made amazing progress in terms of effectiveness. But the main problem remains a shortage of trained officers and NCOs. This is a problem that will take several more years to fix.

The major units of the Iraqi army are currently deployed as follows;

1st Division (counter-insurgency) Habbaniyah

2nd Infantry Division Al Kindi

3rd Infantry Division Al Kasik

4th Infantry Division Tikrit

5th Infantry Division KMTB (Kirkuk military training base)

6th Infantry Division Baghdad

7th Infantry Division Al Asad

8th Infantry Division Diwaniyah

9th Mechanized Infantry Division Taji

10th Infantry Division Basrah

1st Special Intervention Forces Brigade Baghdad International Airport




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