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Analysis: 'Ghost Soldiers,' Ineffective Strikes Allow ISIS to Seize Ramadi

ISIS has conquered a key city some 70 miles from Baghdad. What now stands between the extremists and Iraq's capital? Analysis by NBC News' Bill Neely.

The fall of Iraq’s Ramadi to ISIS was Baghdad's worst military disaster and the most damaging setback for the U.S. strategy to defeat the extremists in almost a year.

Lawmaker Hanin Qadoo called the weekend seizure of the city just 70 miles west of Baghdad “grave and serious.” Even worse, the government will not be able to dislodge ISIS so “the extremists will remain for a long time,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Faced with such a challenge, most countries would be able to reach for well-armed crack troops, backed by air power, to simply overwhelm hundreds of ISIS fighters who swept through Ramadi. Not the Iraqi government.

That's because even after the U.S. spent billions of dollars on Iraq’s military and Western experts trained tens of thousands of Iraqi troops, the country’s armed forces cannot retake a medium-sized city from several hundred militants. American airstrikes, meanwhile, have done little to dislodge the fighters from the swaths of Iraq.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren has called Ramadi’s fall “a failure of leadership and tactics” on the part of Iraq’s security forces.

To make matters worse, Iraqi forces abandoned American equipment when they fled, including dozens of vehicles, a half-dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a "small handful" of artillery pieces, he said.

Warren did not elaborate on the reasons for the stunning defeat, but a perusal of the facts on the ground reveals that the forces fighting ISIS are riddled with corruption, led ineffectively and often deeply sectarian.

U.S. officials who spoke to NBC News on Wednesday blamed Ramadi's fall on neglect of Iraqi troops in Anbar province.

While Iraqi security forces vastly outnumbered ISIS fighters, morale was low because troops had been stationed in the city for at least a year without leave or reinforcements, the officials said. Many soldiers had not been paid for as long as six months, had not been properly resupplied and many armored vehicles sat in disrepair because lack of parts, they said.

"This was a classic breakdown of a military unit, the worst I've ever seen, that allowed ISIS to take down Ramadi without a fight," one U.S. official said condition of anonymity.

Across the country, the reality on the ground stands in stark contrast to what it should be. On paper, some 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police stand ready to take on ISIS. But these are mere numbers, not real boots on the ground. In truth, many of the rank-and-file men rarely wear a uniform.

So what happened to the Iraqi army the West paid for?

Senior officers buy their commissions, often at exorbitant cost. They ensure they would profit from their time in the army, taking bribes not just from the population but from officers and men beneath them.

Then there are the country’s estimated 50,000 “ghost soldiers” who pay a portion of their salaries to their superiors in order not to show up for duty. While al-Abadi has vowed to put an end to the huge scam, this is thought to be a key reason Iraq’s U.S.-trained military has proven largely ineffective in the face of ISIS.

And if soldiers aren’t paying to be absent, they have to buy their own army issue boots. In numerous battles with ISIS, Iraq’s troops complain that they haven’t enough ammunition. Some have used pistols against ISIS’ anti-aircraft guns.

Then there’s the heavy equipment, or the lack of. On paper, the army can call on 140 fully equipped helicopters. But they are rarely seen in battle.

As the country’s army crumbles in the face of the ISIS onslaught, the government is relying more and more on Shiite militias — the descendants of death squads accused of killing tens of thousands of Sunnis during Iraq’s 2006-2007 civil war. The militias are loosely organized under the government’s Popular Mobilization Committee, but are widely thought to be armed and directed by Iran.

The U.S.-led fight from the sky has not been effective. Air attacks have focused on pinpoint strikes on checkpoints and vehicles, which rarely do deep damage to ISIS. And ISIS has used the weather to cover its major moves on the ground, hiding under clouds or sandstorms to take major positions.

So if U.S. airstrikes and the Iraqi army can’t be counted on to recapture the city, they cannot be expected to retake other cities and regions that have fallen to ISIS, such as Mosul, where troops ran for their lives last summer.

Now, some 3,000 Iran-backed Shiite militiamen who have gathered near Ramadi await orders from Baghdad and advice from Tehran. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Shiite fighters have arrived in Anbar as a whole, U.S. officials told NBC News.

And they will guard the roads to Baghdad, a city that now fears ISIS will soon be banging on their door.

June will be the first anniversary of the caliphate — an idealized Islamic state that obliterates modern borders — declared by ISIS. They may seek a prize to mark the day. The fear is that sectarian forces and a hollow army will not stop ISIS celebrating their successes with bombs in the heart of Baghdad.

What is a Caliphate?

June 30, 201401:17

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube contributed to this report.