IRBIL, Iraq — Five weeks after Islamist fighters stormed across northern and western Iraq in a surprise offensive that nearly reached the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, virtually every captured location remains firmly in rebel hands, while the central government’s meager efforts at a counteroffensive have met with failure on virtually every front.
Worse yet, Iraqi and U.S. officials have confirmed that fighters allied with the Islamic State not only captured hundreds of U.S.-supplied Humvees and large amounts of ammunition in their march across Iraq, but they also now possess as many as 52 U.S.-supplied artillery pieces with GPS aiming systems. The 155mm guns have a range of 20 miles, putting many Iraqi cities still in government hands easily within range of Islamic State positions.
Even the Iraqi government’s military briefings, consistently upbeat, hint at the grim outlook: The list of accomplishments cited by the Iraqi military’s spokesman are almost entirely defensive, making it clear that the Islamic State remains on the offensive and in control of when and where fighting takes place.
With five teams of 90 U.S. troops completing their initial assessment of what it would take to help the Iraqi army reverse its military losses, the situation as described by Iraqi soldiers, a senior Iraqi politician and outside analysts who are carefully watching developments underscores how difficult a task awaits any American advisers asked to rejuvenate the Iraqi military. They describe a military riddled with incompetence, unable to provide support to troops in combat, widespread cowardice among the officer corps, and without a coherent plan for reversing the Islamic State’s advance.
The initial U.S. assessment, which arrived at the Pentagon Monday, apparently is just as grim. In one of its most alarming findings, according to a Pentagon official, the advisers concluded that while Iraqi troops could defend Baghdad against an attack now, they would be unable to launch the kind of offensive maneuvers required to fend off the insurgents for the long term, leaving the capital at continued risk. The official asked to remain anonymous because he had not been authorized to discuss the report.
The advisers also warned that the majority of Iraqi brigades are infiltrated by either Sunni extremists or Shiite militias, the official said.
The assessment will inform the Pentagon’s recommendations to President Barack Obama on possible options in Iraq, though there is no public time line for when such recommendations could arrive at the White House. In the meantime, the assessment teams remain in Baghdad, where they would become advisers to the Iraqi military should the White House authorize that step.
As the Pentagon drafts it recommendations, the size of the Iraqi debacle in June is becoming increasingly clear:
Four Iraqi army divisions have simply disappeared and won’t be easily resurrected.
The 2nd Division was routed from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 9 at the beginning of the Islamic State’s advance, and its four brigades have dissolved.
The 1st Division also is basically gone, losing two brigades in Anbar province earlier in the year, then two more during last month’s Islamic State onslaught, including one brigade that in the words of the senior Iraqi politician was “decimated” in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
The same is true of Iraq’s 3rd Division. The division’s 6th and 9th Brigades fled the Islamic State’s advance in the north, and the status of its 11th Brigade is unknown. A small unit of its 10th Brigade is still in Tal Afar, but it is trapped by Islamic State forces.
The 4th Division also was routed. Half its members have disappeared — many suspect they were massacred when the Islamic State captured Tikrit — and only one small unit is known to still exist, surrounded by Islamists at a one-time U.S. military base near Tikrit known as Camp Speicher.
The Iraqi media — which has been ordered by the government to release only good news about operations in order to promote morale, with threats of prison for journalists who fail to spin events positively — asserts that an operation cleared the road between the key Iraqi city of Samarra and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
But the effort in fact appears to have stalled 20 miles outside Tikrit. “It’s heavily contested and the army and militias can’t make headway,” the politician said. “There are too many explosive devices on the road.”
Even what passes for success reveals the limitations of the Iraqi military. Ammar Abdul Hussein, a soldier from the Iraqi army’s so-called SWAT Unit, perhaps the most highly trained unit in the field, said that the arrival of thousands of Shiite militiamen had secured Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine, from the Islamic State’s advance. But Hussein, who returned to Baghdad from Samarra a week ago after three weeks of heavy fighting, said he fears that the light weapons of the government-allied forces are no match for those that the Islamists possess.
“The problem is not the quantity, the problem is the quality. The heaviest weapon we have as SWAT is a BKC,” he said, referring to a medium machine gun. He also said the troops at Samarra are short of food and water.
“We actually never had food at all from the army or the government, and the only way we stayed alive is because of the big mosque in Samarra, and Shiite (charities) are helping us and provide food for us,” he said.
It’s not clear how valuable the equipment the insurgents have captured ultimately will prove to be. Many of the vehicles, including 1,500 armored Humvees, require enormous amounts of gasoline, which remains in short supply throughout the country, thanks to the ongoing battle for the Baiji refinery complex, Iraq’s largest. Jeremy Binnie of HIS Janes, a British military consultancy, said he doubted that the American-made armored vehicles the Islamic State captured would still be operating in a month. “The Iraqis had difficulty keeping their own armor running,” he said.
Of more use, he said, would be the 52 155mm M198 howitzers that have apparently fallen into Islamic State hands. The guns, which cost more than $500,000 each, can fire two rounds every minute, and while Binnie said he doubted that the Islamists would be able to learn how to fire them with pinpoint accuracy quickly, he said, “They shouldn’t have too much trouble shelling large area targets like a city if they have sufficient ammo.”
Among the weapons that fell to the Islamic State also were 4,000 PKC machine guns, a heavy belt-fed weapon that’s been standard for combat forces since the Vietnam War and can fire as many as 800 rounds a minute.
Ahmad Hussam, a Shiite soldier with an Iraqi army unit fighting in Anbar who asked that his unit name be withheld, said he believes the Islamic State is better armed than government forces in Anbar. He noted that the government had made little headway in six months of battling the Islamic Front in Anbar and that it was likely that Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces, where Mosul and Tikrit are located, also will remain under Islamic State control for some time.
While much of the attention has been focused on the Islamic State’s advances in the north and west, the Islamic State also has made advances south of Baghdad, the most worrisome of which is in an area known as Jurf al-Sakhar, which is about 13 miles from the Shiite stronghold of Karbala and lies close to the highway linking Baghdad to the south.
A Kurdish intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter, said the area is now under Islamic State control, an assessment that was echoed the Iraqi politician. “The whole area is controlled by ISIS,” the Iraqi politician said using the acronym for the Islamic State’s previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss security matters with a reporter.
“That will be the place that Daash uses to push out to cut Baghdad from the south,” the Kurdish official said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Staff writers Hannah Allam in Baghdad and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.