Iraqi military marks 101st anniversary as US ends combat mission

Threats from armed groups continue to pose challenges for security forces as they take on the task of safeguarding the country, scarred by conflict.

Iraqi armed forces are seen marching in a ceremony outside with two large Iraqi flags displayed above them
Founded in 1921, the Iraqi armed forces have suffered a series of difficulties over the years, including disbandment in 2003 following the US-led invasion [File: Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office via Reuters]

Baghdad, Iraq – The Iraqi armed forces mark their 101st anniversary on Thursday while embarking on a new chapter in their tumultuous history after the United States formally concluded its combat mission in Iraq on December 31, 2021.

The military faces the thorny task of safeguarding the country scarred by conflicts amid multiple challenges, including keeping the continuous threat from armed groups at bay.

Initially founded in 1921, the Iraqi armed forces have suffered a series of difficulties and bloody conflicts in recent decades, such as the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Gulf War the following year, disbandment in 2003 following the US-led invasion, and most recently the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) group.

The Iraqi government had been expected to organise a national parade to mark the anniversary on Thursday, although it was unclear whether it would go ahead. There was no event on last year’s centenary due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iraqi armed forces have strong ties to the US military, which was essentially in charge of building a new Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion.

After withdrawing its troops in 2010, the US redeployed some military forces to Iraq in 2014 following the Iraqi government’s request to help defeat ISIL, after it had routed the Iraqi military in parts of the country to capture cities such as Mosul.

More than four years after the battlefield defeat of the armed group, the US has now withdrawn all of its combat forces and switched to an advisory position.

Last year there were about 2,500 US soldiers and another 1,000 coalition soldiers currently based in Iraq. It is unclear how many will remain in the advisory phase.

Despite its seemingly grand implications and the inevitable comparison to the recent disastrous troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US combat forces’ withdrawal is unlikely to cause drastic changes in the current security status of Iraq, according to some analysts.

“In reality, the American withdrawal is mostly symbolic, since the American mission had generally already transitioned to an advisory and training role, and the mission of the remaining troops is unlikely to change,” Zeinab Shuker, a professor at Sam Houston State University who studies Iraqi politics, told Al Jazeera.

Yet the threats from armed groups continue to pose challenges to the security forces; from rural counterinsurgency and counterterrorism against ISIL in high-risk areas such as Kirkuk and Diyala, to maintaining effective control of the border with Syria and Turkey.

In recent months, for example, ISIL has staged several attacks against civilians, federal police, and Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, mostly in rural areas during night-time.

Western officials have also blamed pro-Iran factions for attacks on military bases hosting US personnel.

However, Baghdad and much of the rest of Iraq have remained largely peaceful except for a few demonstrations commemorating the former Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and ex-paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who were assassinated by the US two years ago.

According to analysts, this is primarily due to the increasing efficiency and battle-readiness in recent years of the Iraqi armed forces – including state-allied paramilitaries – as it has led the fight against the ISIL group.

“The Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] have demonstrated considerable progress amidst changes within the CJTF-OIR missions [Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve missions] and US armed forces’ transition to a non-combat role in Iraq,” Caroline Rose, an analyst at News Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

Citing the lead inspector general quarterly reports to the US Congress, Rose said the ISF had grown its combat strength “particularly in respect to counter-ISIS operations”.

Now, housing both state-mandated security forces and paramilitary forces, the Iraq armed forces have more than 530,000 active personnel, according to the latest estimate by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its annual global military assessment in 2020. The number has more than doubled since the military was rebuilt in 2014 when the number of active personnel was roughly 200,000, according to the data collected by the World Bank.

The US will also maintain its support to the unit of the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), a division-size unit under the Iraqi minister of defence which targets “terrorism” in Iraq.

“In the narrow case of CTS, US support is still undoubtedly pivotal in maintaining the service’s unique level of professionalism and capability, albeit in low-visibility ways and at little cost,” Michael Knights, a fellow at the US-based Washington Institute who has studied Iraqi military and security extensively, told Al Jazeera.

“Compared to the broader Iraqi Security Forces, the coalition’s special operations adviser group gives the compact CTS an unparalleled level of support that includes training, administrative and financial procurement support, and dedicated intelligence and aerial support.”

However, some analysts say the divisions between the state’s military and paramilitary forces present challenges.

In addition to the state-mandated army, there are also Peshmerga forces that report to the northern Kurdish regional government and the paramilitary umbrella group Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on which Iran asserts significant influence.

In the fight against ISIL, the Peshmerga forces and the PMF forces also played a central role.

The former was established in direct response to the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s repressive policies towards the Iraqi Kurds while the latter quickly came into force after the Shia spiritual leader Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa to call for the Shias to take up arms to fight against ISIL.

Despite their undeniable contribution to the fight against the group in the past years, the paramilitaries are presenting challenges to the security of Iraq of their own.

The border dispute between Baghdad and Erbil has long left a vacuum in “hot areas” such as Kirkuk and Diyala to the exploitation of ISIL cells. In recent months, an uptick of ISIL attacks in these provinces served as a testament to that challenge.

Meanwhile, the growing PMF, largely loyal to Iran, has initiated rounds of attacks against the US presence, and against mass protests in 2019. They have been accused of being behind a targeted assassination campaign against activists, journalists, and dissidents.

How effective the armed forces are to keep Iraq secure partially depends on how the central command can strike the delicate balance with both Peshmerga forces and PMF.

“Outside of a reduced US operational role and an increase in ISIS’ activity, it is notable that the ISF also suffers from internal autonomy struggles, given heavy influence from Iran-aligned militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces and their control over checkpoints, highways, and facilities,” Rose said.

Apart from the relations with the paramilitary forces, ISF also continues to experience maintenance, logistical, and intelligence-gathering challenges without US and CJTF-OIR support and continue to rely on partner air support, said experts.

“With a consolidation of US operational presence in Iraq – with over eight base transfers in 2020 alone – along with paused joint-training opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that ISIS has demonstrated a higher level of operational maturity, there is cause for concern for the ISF’s operational capacity amidst the US transition into an advisory role,” Rose told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera