Analysts warn of an uphill struggle for Iraq’s newly-appointed defence minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, who is charged with turning the discredited national army into a force capable of routing the Islamic State (ISIS).
Al-Obeidi spoke with his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for the first time in a 20-minute phone call this week focused on reforming Iraq’s army so it can recoup land conceded to ISIS, which is also known as IS and ISIL.
“The minister was quite clear… that he has every intention of going on the offense against ISIL and making sure that the Iraqi security forces are properly resourced, trained and equipped to do that,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters after the call.
“He also made it a special point of noting that he has every intention… of making sure that the Iraqi Security Forces represent the interests of all Iraqis, that he wants an inclusive army that’s representative of the population of Iraq and defends every inch of Iraq.”
Al-Obeidi, a Sunni Muslim from Mosul, which is now occupied by ISIS, was approved by Iraq’s parliament last week. Bringing Sunnis into Iraq’s government was seen as vital to stop western Iraq’s marginalised Sunni population from siding with ISIS.
He serves in the Shiite-dominated cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who says he will bridge sectarian divides and unify the country against ISIS, a Sunni extremist group that controls a Sunni-majority area straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
Iraqi troops abandoned their posts and conceded swathes of Iraq to ISIS during the group’s lightening offensive this summer. Despite some losses around the dams at Haditha and Mosul, ISIS has continued to make gains, particularly in Anbar province.
The group, which numbers 30,000 to 50,000 fighters, seized Hit earlier this month and has since probed suburbs of Baghdad, where some 60,000 government troops are tasked with defending the capital. ISIS sleeper cells carry out daily bombings and assassinations there.
“The reality is that ISIL has control and still does control a significant amount of ground in Iraq and I don’t think it’s any different from any complicated, difficult contest,” Hagel said on Thursday. “There will be mixed and various outcomes daily,” he added, saying: “We think it’s working.”
Anthony Cordesman, a critic of US President Barack Obama’s strategy against ISIS, warns that the US air force has been distracted by Kobane, a Kurdish town in north Syria that is holding out to a month-long ISIS siege, and has a mountain to climb with Iraq’s army.
“The US has clearly not provided the level of air strikes it originally planned and has seen much of its focus shift to a peripheral objective in Kobane,” Cordesman, an analyst at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Rudaw.
“It has found that Iraq’s military forces are weaker than original assessments indicated, and they indicated that some half of the 50 plus combat brigades in the Iraq forces would need to be disbanded or totally reorganized, and the other half would take a year to several years to build up into fully effective combat units.”
Obama says ISIS can be routed with airstrikes and by arming Kurds, Iraqis and moderate Syrian opposition fighters as ground forces. Critics say he over-depends on air power, lacks reliable allies as ground forces and has no solution to Syria’s civil war.
Members of the US-led coalition against ISIS will meet in Kuwait on October 27 for talks on fighting tackling violent extremism. Officials from Bahrain, Egypt, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Britain, the US and the United Arab Emirates are expected to attend.