BAGHDAD – Two years after US troops departed, Iraqi security forces are struggling to curb violence that has reached a level not seen since 2008, near the height of America’s military presence.
Iraqi forces are now alone in facing militant groups revitalized by widespread discontent among the minority Sunni Arab community, which complains of being marginalized and targeted by Shiite-led authorities, and by the brutal war in neighboring Syria. They have shortcomings that experts say range from a decline in training and intelligence capabilities to politicization.
And they no longer have ready access to US expertise, firepower and support that they could fall back on in the past.
Iraqi forces have also been repeatedly accused of carrying out abuses including torture. Iraq is now hit by daily attacks — bombs rip through cafes, mosques, markets, weddings and funerals, people are gunned down, and security forces and officials are frequently targeted.
The violence has killed more than 6,500 people since the beginning of 2013, raising questions about the ability of Iraqi forces to secure the country.
“US forces were overseeing or participating or coordinating with the Iraqi forces in their missions before the withdrawal,” a senior Iraqi army officer told AFP. “Iraq is still at the beginning of the road,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that the US withdrawal “made us take responsibility before we completed filling the shortfall.”
The US officially ended combat operations in Iraq in 2010, shifting its focus to training Iraqi forces.
The following year, negotiations on a post-2011 US training mission stalled when Iraq refused to grant US forces legal immunity and Washington declined to keep troops in the country without it. The last American military personnel, except for a small number under US embassy authority, left Iraq on December 18, 2011.
“One result was that we departed without finishing many basic training goals,” said Frank Helmick, a retired US army lieutenant general who served multiple tours in Iraq, including in 2011.
“Additionally, the Iraqi air force was not yet ready to defend its sovereign airspace and still does not possess that capability,” Helmick told AFP. “Finally, the (Iraqi security forces) relied on the American military — in conjunction with US and Iraqi special operations forces — for the intelligence support that allowed them to sustain pressure on insurgent networks,” he said. “That capability has suffered in the absence of direct American support.”
And Iraqi forces face various other shortcomings, including in maintenance, integration of army and police forces capabilities, tactical communications and external defense, Helmick said. He said he does believe they have the required basic skills.
James Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Baghdad from 2010 to 2012, said training seems to have declined since US forces left. “We had a very sophisticated program that we were carrying out while our troops were there... training their companies, battalions and brigades, and they’re not doing (that), as far as I can see, or they’re not doing it to the same degree,” he told reporters. — AFP