[Marxism] Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 11 08:20:04 MDT 2014
NY Times, June 11 2014
Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight
By KAREEM FAHIM and SUADAD AL-SALHY
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
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
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.
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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