The Iraqi army band performs during a change of command ceremony at Camp Taji, Iraq, May 15, 2006. The Iraqi army 2nd Brigade, 9th Mechanized Division is assuming the command of the Sabeaa Al-Boor and Hora Al-Bash battlespace from U.S. Army Soldiers with 7th Squadron, 10th Cavalry, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. The Iraqi soldiers will take the lead and conduct their own counterinsurgency operations in this battlespace. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Michael Larson) (Released)

25 September 2015 – Toronto, CA

by Eric de Roos


What initially surprised many analysts and commentators during the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) rapid incursion into Iraq was not their viciousness or barbarity – as the Syrian conflict has been no stranger to brutality. Rather, it was just how quickly ISIS was able to gain control of Iraqi territory that was most alarming. Over the course of little over half a year, ISIS went from filling a security vacuum in a failed state in the midst of a civil war, to routing the military of an established (albeit newly) state. The apparent capitulation of the Iraqi Army in the major cities of Mosul and Ramadi to much smaller ISIS forces quickly became the focal point of analyses explaining the disaster.

This dire situation in Iraq precipitated the intervention by a large coalition of predominantly Western nations to degrade ISIS’ territorial control. However, airstrikes, while hoped to be useful in the short-term, fall short of providing any permanent political solution. A long-term strategy is needed going forward. One aspect of this strategy should examine Iraqi civil-military relations in terms of ongoing sectarian divisions. Preventing Iraq from creating a capable army is their long-standing history of inadequate civil-military relations. Therefore it would be useful to examine the history of Iraqi civil-military relations in order to better understand the current problems that plague the Iraqi Army.

Modern Civil-Military Relations

Throughout Saddam’s reign, the army became an essential tool of oppressing the majority Shia. Nonetheless, Saddam continued to view the army suspiciously, frequently purging military officers. To further guard against future challenges from them military, Saddam built up the elite Republican Guard units filled with loyalists. The belligerent foreign policy pursued by Saddam, first toward Iran and then Kuwait, led to a massive expansion of the military. Despite its size, most of the military was destroyed during the Gulf War. However, the U.S.-led coalition made the controversial decision to end the invasion after 100 hours, leaving Saddam in power and much of his Republican Guard (held in reserve) intact. With Iraq’s government in disarray, the Shia and Kurdish minorities took the opportunity to take up arms against Saddam. Unfortunately, Saddam’s Republican Guard ruthless crushed the opposition in the North and South.

Although Saddam was able to maintain power in the 1990s, his army was a shadow of what it was prior to Gulf War. Moreover, he continued to regularly purge the officer corps, crippling its ability to function as a professional military. Indeed, a study by the RAND Corporation examining the 2003 invasion of Iraq credits the initial success of the invasion as a result of incompetence on the part of the Iraqi military above all else.

A car bomb was detonated in the parking lot of an Iraqi police station outside the gate of the Green Zone near the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 4, 2004.
A car bomb was detonated in the parking lot of an Iraqi police station outside the gate of the Green Zone near the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 4, 2004.

At the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, the head U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, made the decision to disband what was left of the Iraqi army. Rebuilding a new Iraqi National Guard from scratch became one of the top priorities of the occupying American forces. Reconciling the long standing grievances among the Sunni and Shia became even more difficult after a sectarian civil war broke out in early 2006. While the Iraq Surge succeeded short-term in securing the Iraqi population, the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to capitalize on the brief chance for reconciliation, by refusing to give Sunnis a stake in his government. The withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, left Maliki’s government unencumbered to promote sectarian policies – further alienating the Sunni population.

Civil-Military Problems Remaining in Iraq

There are two main impediments that face the civil-military relationship in Iraq, both of which are ubiquitous to the history outlined above.

The first is that the sectarian divide of Iraq permeates its armed forces. For most of its history, the Army’s officer corps was restricted to Sunnis, ensuring Shias could never hold higher ranks. Currently, however, the opposite is the case, as the post-Saddam Shia dominated governments have made sure the ranks of the Defense Ministry and officer corps are populated by majority Shia.

Iraqi soldiers marching for a parade

This creates two problems. By excluding Sunnis from most of the high-ranking roles in military, Sunnis see the Iraqi Army as a Shia army as opposed to a national force. Perhaps more crucial is that the most qualified military officers are Sunni – simply because Shia were barred from being military officers for so long – limiting the potential capabilities of the Army. Moreover, as the Iraqi population begins to view the Army as a sectarian force, Sunnis will continue to resent the Army, resulting in Sunni tribes allying themselves with ISIS. More troubling, is that Shias within the Army will not fight to protect the Sunni population – which is what many analysts argue happened in Mosul and Ramadi.

The second impediment that remains is political interference in the military and vice-versa. There is no short-term solution to this. It will take time for a political culture that values an apolitical military under a constitutional framework to form. A promising sign has been Maliki’s successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, willingness to appoint a Sunni to the post of Defense Minister. Furthermore, Abadi has made it a priority of his government to combat corruption and mismanagement in the Iraqi military. Western governments should remain cautious of any immediate sweeping improvements. It is important that when formulating a strategy to combat ISIS, the capabilities of the Iraqi Army are not overestimated – something the U.S. has begun to take into account.

To achieve viable long-term success in Iraq, Western policy makers must understand both the challenges to civil-military relations outlined above. It is not enough to only have a military strategy, but to also support political reforms. Retired General David Petraeus succinctly made this point in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week:

“the center of gravity of the fight in Iraq is actually not on the front lines, the future of Iraq is going to be determined by politics in Baghdad, and we have a unique opportunity right now to support the Prime Minister in Baghdad.”

Petraeus is correct. Improving the political environment that affects Iraqi civil-military relations is a necessity for the fight against ISIS. This is the first rule of a successful Counterinsurgency strategy and we need to realise that we are not in a counter-terrorism operation.


Feature Photo: The Iraqi army band performs during a change of command ceremony at Camp Taji – Wikimedia Commons, 2015

Inset Photo: Car bomb near Green Zone, December 2004 – Wikimedia Commons, 2015

Inset Photo: Iraqi soldiers marching in a parade– Wikimedia Commons, 2015

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

By Eric de Roos

Eric de Roos is a Staff Analyst for DefenceReport. He also is a regular contributor to Vanguard Magazine, writing on foreign and defence policy. He holds a M.A. and B.A. (Honors) in political science from the University of Western Ontario. His master's thesis examined U.S. Civil-Military Relations from 2001-2003. He is a co-founder and adviser to the Leadership and Democracy Lab at the University of Western Ontario. He can be contacted at: [email protected]