[Marxism] Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 11 08:20:04 MDT 2014

NY Times, June 11 2014
Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight

BAGHDAD — The infantryman and his colleagues were already worn down 
after six months of fighting militants in western Iraq, men flush with 
weapons and zeal. Army commanders had no answer for the daily deadly 
ambushes and no broader strategy for prevailing in the longer war.

The final straw was the death of a friend, killed two weeks ago by a 
sniper’s bullet. The infantryman, Bashar al-Halbousi, deserted, making 
the same choice as hundreds of other soldiers in his battalion, he said.

“The state is weak,” Mr. Halbousi said. “This will be an endless battle.”

After months of grinding conflict against a resurgent militant movement, 
the Iraqi Army is having its power blunted by a rise in desertions, 
turning the tide of the war and fragmenting an institution, trained and 
funded by the United States, that some hoped would provide Iraqis a 
common sense of citizenship.

In a nation tearing apart along sectarian lines, Sunnis and Shiites have 
served together in the military. But the defections of Sunni soldiers 
threatened to deepen the growing perception among Iraq’s Sunnis that the 
military serves as an instrument of Shiite power, even while Shiites 
soldiers have also fled.

The toll of the desertions came into sharp relief on Tuesday, as 
soldiers and their commanders abandoned bases in Mosul, all but ceding 
Iraq’s second-largest city to extremist fighters belonging to the 
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The fleeing troops left weapons, vehicles and even their uniforms 
behind, as militants took over at least five army installations and the 
city’s airport. In a desperate bid to stem the losses, the military was 
reduced to bombing its own bases to avoid surrendering more weapons to 
the enemy.  American officials who had asserted that the $14 billion 
that the United States had spent on the Iraqi security forces would 
prepare them to safeguard the country after American troops left were 
forced to ponder images from Mosul of militants parading around captured 

The crisis has been picking up momentum as Sunni extremists have gained 
power and territory across the north and west of the country — and as 
soldiers have been leaving their posts.

In interviews over several days, soldiers and army commanders said the 
desertions had become widespread, with thousands of men laying down 
their arms, gutting front-line units across the country. Before the 
troops dissolved in Mosul, the army was losing as many as 300 soldiers a 
day, between desertions, deaths and injuries, according to a security 
analyst who works with the Iraqi government and requested anonymity 
because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the military.

One former soldier who would give only his first name, Mohamed, because 
deserting is illegal, said that he had served in Ramadi and that his 
colleagues started deserting months ago as the deaths started mounting. 
“I felt like I was fighting armies, not an army,” said Mohamed, 24.

The militants came in waves, sending suicide bombers when their 
ammunition grew scarce. Mohamed said that eight of his friends had died 
and that he almost did, too, when a mortar shell struck his Humvee. When 
militants singled him out as a target for assassination, forcing him to 
flee, it was almost a relief.

“I’m tired,” he said. “Everyone is tired.”

The government has played down the scale of the crisis, in part by 
registering soldiers as “missing” rather than as deserters. Officials 
also blamed the problem on unrelated issues — saying, for instance, that 
soldiers were not returning from home leave, but only because roads 
leading to the battlefields had become unsafe.

Lt. Gen. Rashid Fleih, the commander of operations in Anbar Province, 
said last week that recent successes by the army in clearing several 
highways would resolve that issue. “Now the soldier who is on leave can 
go back to his unit without any problems,” he said. After the defeat in 
Mosul, though, the crisis could not be so easily brushed away. For the 
first time on Tuesday, the government publicly invoked the law 
forbidding desertions, threatening harsh punishments, including the 
death penalty, according to a media adviser for the prime minister, Nuri 
Kamal al-Maliki.

The government, though, seemed to have limited leverage. In interviews, 
several deserters cited the ferocity of the battle as their primary 
reason for leaving. They spoke of nerve-racking patrols in remote areas 
or in contested cities, surrounded, at times, by hostile residents. They 
searched booby-trapped houses and traveled roads full of bombs. Most 
terrifying, though, they said, were the snipers.

Their stories added detail to the brutal shadowy war between the 
militants and the army — the latest trauma for a country still reeling 
from the American invasion and occupation and the sectarian civil war 
that followed.

Some soldiers said their families begged them to leave the service. One 
25-year-old deserter said his mother was so terrified of the fighting 
that she burned his uniform every time he returned home on leave. Two 
months ago, he said she raised the stakes, threatening to kill herself 
if he returned to his unit.

“We lost so many troops — I lost three or four of my friends,” said the 
former soldier, who was sent straight to the front line in Falluja after 
basic training. “The fighting was so fierce.”

The desertions threaten to transform Iraq’s vicious conflict into 
something even more dangerous, by starving the government of fighters as 
it struggles to recapture lost territory: in Falluja, which was taken 
over by the militants six months ago, and now in Mosul. With fewer men 
to face the militants, the army is relying on artillery and airstrikes — 
including, human rights workers say, the use of indiscriminate barrel 
bombs — increasing the risks to civilians.

As the army falters, Shiite militias are also playing a growing role in 
the conflict, nudged toward the fight by the government of Mr. Maliki. 
As the militiamen face radical Sunni jihadists, the threat of a wider 
sectarian conflagration grows.

The desertions of men like Mr. Halbousi — a Sunni in an army dominated 
by Shiites, the majority sect in Iraq — is another dangerous 
development. “It reinforces the sectarian polarization,” said Hayder 
al-Khoei, an Iraqi researcher and associate fellow with Chatham House, a 
policy research group in London.

So did the government’s statements, with its “not so subtle references 
to a religious war”— an echo of the jihadists’ sectarian speech, Mr. 
Khoei said.

But above all, the soldiers — young men from southern Iraq, or the 
outskirts of Baghdad, who joined the service for its relatively good 
salary — felt “abandoned,” Mr. Khoei said.

“They are thrown into this fire,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

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