Baghdad, Iraq The Iraqi armed forces are celebrating their 101st anniversary on Thursday as they formally launch a new chapter in their turbulent history after the United States concludes his combat mission in Iraq on 31 December 2021.
The military faces the thorny task of protecting the country, which is marked by conflicts amid multiple challenges, including keeping the constant threat of armed groups at bay.
The Iraqi Armed Forces, initially established in 1921, has experienced a series of problems and bloody conflicts in recent decades, such as the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Gulf War the following year. dissolution in 2003 after the US-led invasion, and most recently the fight against the ISIL (ISIS) group.
The Iraqi government is expected to hold a national parade on Thursday to celebrate the anniversary, though it was unclear whether it would continue. There was no event at last year’s centenary due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Iraqi armed forces have strong ties with the U.S. military, which was essentially in charge of building a new Iraqi army after 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 expelling the Iraqi army from parts of the country to cities. to conquer Mosul.
More than four years after the battlefield defeat of the armed group, the US has now withdrawn all its fighting forces and switched to an advisory position.
Last year, there were about 2,500 U.S. soldiers and another 1,000 coalition soldiers currently stationed in Iraq. It is unclear how much will remain in the advisory phase.
Despite its seemingly great implications and the inevitable comparison with the recent disastrous withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the withdrawal of US combatants will cause drastic changes in the current security status of Iraq, according to some analysts.
“In fact, the U.S. withdrawal is mostly symbolic, as the U.S. mission has generally already shifted to an advisory and training role, and the mission of the remaining troops is unlikely to change,” said Zeinab Shuker, a professor at Sam Houston State University, which is studying Iraqi politics, told Al Jazeera.
Yet the threats posed by armed groups still pose challenges to the security forces; from rural counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism against ISIL in high-risk areas such as Kirkuk and Diyala, to maintaining effective border control with Syria and Turkey.
In recent months, for example, ISIL has carried out several attacks on civilians, federal police and Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, mostly in rural areas during the night.
Western officials also blamed pro-Iranian factions for attacks on military bases that house U.S. personnel.
However, Baghdad and much of the rest of Iraq remained largely peaceful, except for a few demonstrations commemorating the former Iranian general. Qassem Soleimani and former paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who was killed by the US two years ago.
According to analysts, this is mainly due to the increasing efficiency and combat readiness of Iraqi armed forces in recent years – including state-allied paramilitaries – as it has led the fight against the ISIL group.
“Iraqi security forces [ISF] showed significant progress amid changes within the CJTF-OIR missions [Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve missions] and the transition of US armed forces to a non-combat role in Iraq, ”Caroline Rose, an analyst at News Institute, a Washington-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.
Referring to the Chief Inspector General’s quarterly reports to the US Congress, Rose said the ISF had increased its combat strength “especially with regard to anti-ISIS operations”.
Now, home to both state-mandated security forces and paramilitary forces, the Iraqi 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 staff was around 200,000, according to data collected by the World Bank.
The US will also retain its support for the unit of elite counter-terrorism (CTS) unit, a division-sized unit under the Iraqi defense minister that targets “terrorism” in Iraq.
“In the close case of CTS, U.S. support is undoubtedly still crucial in maintaining the service’s unique level of professionalism and capability, albeit in low visibility ways and at little cost,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at the US-based Washington Institute, which has studied Iraqi military and security in detail, told Al Jazeera.
“Compared to the broader Iraqi Security Forces, the coalition’s special operations advisory group gives the compact CTS an unparalleled level of support that includes training, administrative and financial procurement support, and dedicated intelligence and air 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 reporting to the northern Kurdish regional government and the paramilitary umbrella group Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) over which Iran exerts significant influence.
In the fight against ISIL, the Peshmerga forces and the PMF forces also played a central role.
The former was set up in direct response to former dictator Saddam Hussein’s repressive policies towards the Iraqi Kurds, while the latter came into effect quickly after Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for the Shias to take up arms. to fight against. ISIL.
Despite their unmistakable contribution to the fight against the group in recent years, the paramilitaries present 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 for the exploitation of ISIL cells. In recent months, an increase in ISIL attacks in these provinces has served as evidence of that challenge.
Meanwhile, the growing PMF, largely loyal to Iran, began rounds of attacks against the US presence and against mass protests in 2019. They are accused of being behind a targeted assassination campaign against activists, journalists and dissidents.
How effective the armed forces are in keeping Iraq safe depends in part on how the central command can strike the delicate balance with both Peshmerga forces and PMF.
“Apart from a diminished US operational role and an increase in ISIS activity, it is noteworthy that the ISF also suffers from internal autonomy struggles, given the great influence of Iran – bound 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 experiences maintenance, logistics and intelligence gathering challenges without the support of the US and CJTF-OIR and still relies on partner air support, experts said.
“With a consolidation of US operational presence in Iraq – with more than eight base transfers in 2020 alone – coupled with interrupted joint training opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that ISIS has shown a higher level of operational maturity, “there is cause for concern about the ISF’s operational capacity amid the US transition to an advisory role,” Rose told Al Jazeera.