MAHMOUDIYA, Iraq — Iraq troops say they were never ready for the kind of challenge they’re facing now.
The Iraqi army is struggling to confront the thousands of Sunni extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), many of them battle-hardened after years of fighting both U.S. troops in Iraq and the Syrian army.
One western diplomat described ISIS as a result of “combat Darwinism”: their leaders survived U.S. marines in Fallujah and Syria’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons -- facts which have aided their recruitment and boosted their numbers. They are pushing hard against the Iraqi army, which so far has been unable to push back.
Iraqi soldiers blamed the United States for not giving -- or even selling -- Iraq enough advanced weapons to fight. They blamed the Iraqi government even more for refusing to make a deal with Washington that would have kept a residual U.S. force in Iraq. Even more, they blamed corruption and political infighting for rotting the Iraq army after U.S. troops pulled out in 2011.
“Morale is terrible,” said one Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun Wednesday. “There’s so much corruption. There are officers who tell their soldiers to stay at home and take permanent vacations, as long as they kick back half of their salary.”
In Mahmoudiya, in an area south of Baghdad so full of Sunni extremists U.S. forces used to call it the “triangle of death,” the Iraqi soldier was worried – about what might happen to his family if he is injured.
“There’s no support in the army,” he said. “We’re afraid if we get injured, even in battle, we’ll have our salaries cut. We’ll be taken off the books and forgotten about,” he said. He stopped talking once his commander arrived.
The commander, Major General Ahmed Salim Bahjat, described corruption as “the biggest danger to the country, more dangerous than terrorism.”
At just 41 years-old, Bahjat is the youngest major general in the Iraqi army and is considered one of its rising stars. He was trained by U.S. troops, fought against Sunni radicals in Fallujah in 2004, and against Shiite militias a few years later. Bahjat detests talking about sectarian war in Iraq. His father is Shiite. His mother is Sunni. He wants a secular army and a secular Iraq. Asked why the Iraqi military hasn’t been able to stop the insurgent advance, he said the army lacks advanced weapons and airpower.
“As the division commander I believe American airstrikes are needed to confront the terrorists,” he said.
When Major General Bahjat used to conduct joint operations with U.S. forces in Iraq, there were always helicopters above and heavy weapons nearby. Now, Bahjat’s 17th army division of 15,000 soldiers doesn't have a single tank and receives no air support.
Still, he remains determined. His mission is to secure southern Baghdad to ensure that militants don’t storm the capital.
“That won’t happen. I will go out with a knife if I have to,” he said.