Global Policy Forum

Which Iraqi Army?

New York Times
September 1, 2006

Iraq's prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has a problem. His power depends on two armies. One is Iraq's national army, trained and supported by the United States. The other is the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia loyal to Mr. Maliki's most powerful political backer, Moktada al-Sadr.

This week, open warfare broke out between these two armies. Mr. Maliki can no longer put off making an essential choice. He can choose to be the leader of a unified Iraqi government, or he can choose to be the captive of a radical Shiite warlord. He can no longer pretend to be both.

The issue came to a head in the southern city of Diwaniya. The fighting began when the Mahdi Army took to the streets to protest the arrest of several Sadr loyalists. At one point, according to an Iraqi general, Mahdi fighters killed a group of Iraqi soldiers in a public square. After hours of fierce fighting, Shiite politicians worked out a cease-fire with Mr. Sadr. But no one sees this as an isolated incident or imagines it will not soon be repeated.

Iraq's national army is the very fragile reed on which White House hopes for an eventual American withdrawal now rest — as President Bush made clear yesterday in a speech about Iraq in which he heaped praise on Mr. Maliki but painted a picture of the Iraq war that had only the most tenuous connections to reality. The Iraqi Army was already demoralized and fragmented. Its soldiers and officers, including some courageous Sunnis who have defied the insurgency to stand with their Shiite and Kurdish countrymen, cannot be expected to go on risking their lives indefinitely unless Prime Minister Maliki stands up to Mr. Sadr's attacks.

But thus far, the prime minister has conspicuously stood aside, recently denouncing Washington for supporting an Iraqi Army attack on a Sadr stronghold in Baghdad. Mr. Maliki's refusal to go after the main stronghold — Sadr City — helps explain Baghdad's continued high level of violence despite the prime minister's endlessly repeated announcements of a security crackdown in the capital.

The underlying political reality is that Mr. Maliki owes his job to an alliance between his own Islamic Dawa Party and Mr. Sadr's faction. (If you see a parallel to the way Hezbollah has shielded itself from being disarmed by the Lebanese government, so does Mr. Sadr. A few weeks ago he rallied tens of thousands of his supporters in Baghdad to cheer Hezbollah's rocket attacks against Israeli cities.)

The White House and the Pentagon keep assuring Americans that despite the obvious problems, the Iraqi Army is becoming increasingly capable of taking over basic defense responsibilities. But evidence continues to mount that it is not.

In Anbar Province, the western heart of the Sunni insurgency, army desertion rates in some units have run as high as 40 percent. In Maysan, in the Shiite southeast, 100 Iraqi soldiers defied orders to deploy for Baghdad, in part out of concern they would be asked to fight Shiite militias. Days before, a former British base in Maysan that had been turned over to the Iraqi Army was overrun by looters as Iraqi soldiers and the police stood watching.

Instead of standing up to take over the defense of Iraq, the Iraqi Army is in danger of crumbling. Now, government-backed Shiite militiamen have publicly killed Iraqi soldiers and fought an army unit to a humiliating draw. And Mr. Maliki still hasn't decided where his military loyalty lies.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Government


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.