Today, we’re pleased to present an exceptionally important article on the war against the Islamic State (IS) in Northern Iraq. Guest contributor CPT (P) Chris Mercado has conducted an interview with an Iraqi military officer active in the fight on the ground against IS. The duration of the interview lasted several hours.
The threat to Iraqi military fighting it out with IS in Iraq is high. Accordingly, the officer’s identity has been disguised. Mr. Mercado has altered personal details in order to ensure the security of both the officer and his family. The article begins below.
Editor in Chief
In early June, 2014, the terror group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) launched a major offensive into the northeastern portion of Iraq. In a matter of days, ISIS fighters seized control of Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, and much of the surrounding Nineveh province, placing significant pressure on Baghdad to the south. In the face of this onslaught, and despite nearly a decade of US-led training and an investment in the tens of millions of dollars, the Iraqi Army all but collapsed. Many of the soldiers and officers brought into the reconstituted Iraqi Army held fast, however, and remain prepared in spirit if not capability to fight for their new Iraq. One of those officers is a man we will call “Major R.”
Major R. is an active duty Iraqi Army Infantry officer with over 10 years of service in the Iraqi Army, joining the Iraqi Army with a belief in a free Iraq. He has led Iraqi Army Infantry Platoons and commanded an Infantry company in Baghdad, Iraq during the surge and awakening. He fought against both al-Qaeda and Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) groups and currently is contributing to the fight against ISIS/IS (Islamic State). What makes this interview even more compelling is that Major R is an ethnic Kurd from Ninevah province, where his family is currently in territory occupied by IS. Rather than join the Peshmerga, Major R. joined the Iraqi Army on the advice of family members. To protect Major R. and his family from reprisals, all identifying background information that might compromise him or his family has been stripped.
Pseudonym and familial anonymity in place, Major R. agreed to sit down with me and discuss the current state of the Iraqi Army, the differences between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, and what it will take for them to beat IS.
Q: Are there political leaders or military leaders in Iraq who can fix the problems? If so, what are the obstacles they are facing?
A: The people who want to fix the problems within Iraq can’t, they cannot separate the Army and political parties. I’m not supposed to follow a specific party, but there are over 360 political parties in Iraq. We should be loyal to Iraq, not a certain political party.
Q: Is this still part of the problem today?
A: Yes, this is the problem that made the Iraqi Army leave Mosul and Ramadi and give it to ISIS. There are three divisions in Mosul. The people who serve in Mosul, they didn’t fight anyone, didn’t shoot any bullets against ISIS even though there were only 400 ISIS fighters in Mosul. The people in these divisions were from Shia and there is no loyalty. They are only loyal to their own parties.
Q: How do we fix that?
A: We need honest leadership. We have to stop using the words Shia, Sunni, Kurdish. We need to be more proficient and professional. We are being paid to do a job, getting a good salary.
Q: So we need to instill loyalty and professionalism and an obedience to the Iraqi Army, but not to your party?
A: Exactly. No parties. That is why we are losing the war to ISIS. We are losers, it is a fact. I don’t like to say this, but it is reality. ISIS is controlling the second largest city in Iraq, which is Mosul.
Q: How did ISIS arrive?
A: They came in from the right coast of Mosul, entering from the desert from open area with Ramadi and Tikrit using brand new Toyota pickups, meaning someone is supporting them.
Q: Are these technical pickups?
A: Yes, there are machine guns on the backs, PKMs, and Russian .50 cals, like DSHKA’s. They started from the right quarter of Mosul.
Q: What day and month?
A: It was the first week of June.
Q: Did they come in the dark of the night or was this the middle of the day?
A: It was the middle of the morning, they were very controlled and very confident. I have a lot of friends in this quarter, I used to live in this quarter. They called me and asked where the Iraqi Army was. They told me that ISIS is now in Sabatash, the Iraqi Police pulled back and no one is fighting them. This is coming from civilians. I tried to get information from them to get it to military intelligence, as I thought we would do a real operation there. I collected information from them. I asked how many people were there and was told there were 20 to 30 vehicles of people. The people in these vehicles have long beards and look like they hadn’t showered in 6 or 7 months. They had monster faces, meaning they came from the desert. Being in the desert makes you look very tired and haggard. When they entered Mosul, the people of that quarter saw that the Iraqi Police and Army do not fight ISIS. ISIS then used the mosques to call people to join them. There were like 50-100 fighters and in the same day they became like 400 fighters that controlled both sides of Mosul.
Q: And the Iraqi Army has three divisions in Mosul?
A: Yes, three divisions and I swear there was not more than 400 fighters.
Q: That’s like two or three companies?
A: Let’s say one battalion, we have three divisions there. 400 fighters controlled Mosul. The Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, the National Guard, everyone took off their uniforms and went back home. Nobody fought.
Q: Was there anybody that fought?
A: You cannot say that no one fought. You cannot say.
Q: So maybe some?
A: The leadership, General Gambar and General Hadan, they came to Mosul to lead the operation there. They were the first two guys to run away, they used helicopters to go to Erbil, Kurdistan. They escaped, they left the army in Mosul. The top ran, just like what happened with Saddam and it fell apart. Cut the head off the snake, the whole body of the snake becomes un-useful.
Q: So where did all of these soldiers go? Did they just go home?
A: Yes, they just went home.
Q: What happened to all the equipment?
A: They left it for ISIS.
Q: What happened to those generals? Are they still in the Army?
A: Yes, General Hadan is the ground forces commander. He escaped. General Gambar is the G3 for the general staff, he is a four star general. What made these two big generals escape from Mosul, from the fight? This is the problem of the loyalty of the Iraqi Army- parties, politics, religion, nationality, where we belong, who I am.
For example, if my party told me to fight for these people, I will fight, but I am not going to care about my commander, about my Army. My belief is my religion. I will follow the Sunni guys, but not going to follow the Shia guys. If my commander was a Shiite guy, I am not going to follow him, but I follow the Sunnis. So, that’s what the Sunnis would say, just like the Kurdish and the Shia people would say, that’s the problem.
So the Generals realized that ISIS will fight, and they don’t care if they die or live, because they believe in something. ISIS is growing quickly because the people in Mosul are supporting them, they have the same religion. They realized the Iraqi Army cannot face or fight these people.
Q: How is the Army different from the Army under Saddam?
A: If you are comparing the time of Saddam, he was ruling everything by power and fear. They fought under fear from Saddam, he was a dictator. After 2003, there was no more fear. We have democracy and have freedoms and everything. I can do whatever I want to do. The mindset of the people has changed.
Q: So without the fear, you are more loyal to your belief and religion?
A: You can say that from one point of view, but others have their own agenda.
Q: About ISIS…today how often and how frequent are the attacks – on the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Army, or the citizens of villages or towns?
A: This depends on the engagements lines. There is different engagement lines with Kurds and Peshmerga. With Peshmerga, they control a lot of cities. The strategy of ISIS lies with the people – they depend on the people. In Bashiqah, the town on the border, the muslim people there are Sunna. They would accept ISIS. When they accept ISIS, ISIS grows stronger there. This is like cancer. The people here suffer too much from the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Government. The people don’t like either of them. So who’s the next one they will like. The people then turn to ISIS. People are willing to go to paradise if they die with ISIS. The people already have a miserable life, they don’t have electricity for air conditioning in the hot summer, they don’t have jobs, they don’t have a salary.
Q: Is ISIS providing anything to the people? Or are they just promising?
A: ISIS makes promises to the people. The majority of Mosul’s people like ISIS. This is because of Iraq’s mistakes, Iraq’s corruption – we turned the people to ISIS. If you go to the real life in Mosul, you’ll see – the majority of people there like ISIS.
Q: So you’re saying….(interrupted)…
A: ISIS uses fear to control the people. ISIS has a very strong system. They use extreme Islam. The people understand that if they don’t follow ISIS, they will be killed.
Q: So the people are stuck between getting killed by ISIS and having no support from the Government.
A: Yes, it’s complex like this.
Q: What kind of grievances do the people have?
A: The people need everything; when they look at themselves and they are far away from Irbil like 50 km, they look at people living in cites like Irbil, which is like Dubai and their villages have nothing.….
Q: So the people see a disparity…
A: Yes. These people feel like second class citizens. Day by day, these problems make the anger in the people’s hearts grow bigger and bigger and make them like ISIS.
Q: ISIS’attacks – how well are they planned, coordinated, and how do they carry them out?
A: They have very strong military leadership, which is (comprised of) former Iraqi Army officers from the time of Saddam. This leadership, mixed with the modern principles of fighting in urban operations.
Q: Who is supporting ISIS?
A: I don’t know exactly. Speaking in general terms, we believe that Arab Gulf countries are supporting ISIS. We know there are a lot of agendas supporting ISIS; to put the bad people together in this place.
Q: ISIS has strong military leadership, led by former Iraqi Army officers from Saddam’s time…
A: Mixed with modern principles of fighting, tactics, insurgency, and in Syria they get a lot of experience from there. They know all the weakness of the Iraqi Army, they know how to exploit these weakness points. They know I will fight not more than 5 minutes. ISIS only needs to fight for 10 minutes to displace the Iraqi Army from their positions.
Q: ISIS is exploiting the vulnerability…
A: We don’t have professionalism in the Iraqi Army. We don’t have anything to believe in. We have very little to believe in. When I see my leadership is weak, I’m not going to care anymore. We need to fix this problem in the Army. We have the best Soldiers in the world. We can believe in something. But we need good leadership. We have money, we have oil, we have a lot of everything – our leaders are stealing our money. They don’t do anything for our Army. We need good people to understand what’s going on and put everything in the correct position. That’s what we’re missing.
Q: So you say that the tactics ISIS are using are very modern, they’re very new tactics in urban warfare. Are they synchronizing sniper fire, RPG fire….
A: Yes they are – RPG Fire, sniper fire – they have all the equipment. The Iraqi Army left everything behind in Mosul. They have night vision – they can do night operations. They are a real state now. They are an Army. I called my father last week and asked him about the situation; my father told me it’s a crazy situation. He told me the Peshmerga got some mortars and couldn’t figure out how to use the mortars to make effect.
Q: Iraqi Army and Peshmerga have the equipment but doesn’t know how to use it?
A: No, they know how to use it..…I’m talking about a specific situation – a single specific unit that didn’t know how to use the equipment. The Iraqi Army has more capabilities and more experience, but they don’t fight. The difference between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army is that the Peshmerga, they believe. And they are good fighters. They are loyal, but this is the opposite of the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army has lot of experience since 1928 until 2014. This experience is not mixed with the principle of loyalty to the country. The Peshmerga need to be trained well, if they have good equipment, weapons, trained well, they will do a lot of things good. They will be very strong, very good force.
Q: Here’s a question about the equipment that the US gave to the Iraqi Army. Is this equipment maintained well? What is its condition?
A: Yes, well, it depends on the unit. If there is no corruption, they will maintain their stuff. But some units, no.
Q: So explain the corruption.
A: Okay. I will explain the corruption to you. If I am the battalion commander – they are selling the positions of leadership in the Iraqi Army. I pay you $50,000 US and I can be a battalion commander right now. If I get this command position, I can control more than $100 Million dinar each month and get a very good benefit – it’s a business – not an Army. Going down from the battalion commander – the S2 can blackmail officers in the unit as well. If I don’t pay the S2 he can report people to the intelligence in Baghdad. The battalion commander will pay the S2 to make him shut his mouth. You will see the intelligence guy with the battalion commander – they are the best of friends. Because the BC gives money to the S2 so both of them get benefited, so the unit’s screwed up, so the IA is screwed up, so ISIS will win.
Q: When ISIS does attack, are they attacking like a conventional Army, or are they attacking like an insurgent force?
A: They have great tactics. They have choices when they attack. They will use different engagement lines, and different weapons in ways that you would never expect from an organized Army. They will use their RPG and then transition to their PKM machine guns directly. This speaks to their tactics and their training. When I see (the US army) using the AT-4 and then transition to the 240’s directly, that means you’ve been trained well.
Q: What is your assessment of the capabilities of ISIS.
A: They can control all of Iraq in 3 days if they wanted to. They have a lot of capabilities and they do what we wouldn’t expect. The people controlling the 2nd biggest city in Iraq by 400 fighters. They are doing military parades in Mosul. The people accepted them. The Iraq Army was like a dictator to the people. They brought a lot of Shia guys and put them in Sunni cities – that was like what Saddam did. So what’s going on is they’re doing the opposite exactly. Repressing the Sunna. This began with small demonstrations in Ramadi. The people wanted salaries, they had (inaudible)….the Prime Minister didn’t care about the people. This small demonstration opened the door to ISIS because of the mistakes of our Prime Minister and the Dawa party. It’s old hate – from the time of Saddam. We can’t forget about what Iran’s doing in Iraq.
Q: Is Iran worried about ISIS?
A: No. Iran has capabilities to deal with ISIS if they want to.
Q: ISIS started out as 400. What are they today?
A: ISIS is an Army. I’m not sure of an exact number. But you can say a lot of people joined ISIS.
Q: How many Soldiers in the Iraqi Army and Police who took off their uniform are now fighting for ISIS? Is it possible?
A: I don’t know, but not a lot. I’m sure there’s some, but not a lot.
Q: Is ISIS using brutal tactics against the people? We’ve heard reports about killing Christians, Yazidis, children..
A: ISIS has killed Christians. They have killed Yazidis. What happened now in Mosul, they are trying to get the people on their side, not to run away from them. What’s going on in the media, the citizens of Mosul don’t believe it. They think it’s made up. When the people see ISIS doing a speech on Fridays in the mosques, ISIS is talking about the right things….but in fact, ISIS has done a lot of crimes against a lot of people – not just the Yazids, they killed Sunna too. They killed a lot of Shia too. If you are not with me you are against me. This is their strategy. ISIS was more merciful with the Christians than the Yazidis. They execute a lot of Yazidian people.
Q: Do you think ISIS can hold and control the cities they are taking?
A: The Iraqi Army can fix these problems – it’s not impossible. We can. We can get the Mosul city, we can get all these places which has been controlled by ISIS, but what we need to do that – we need a lot of stuff. We need a good – a perfect trained Army. This is about believers who believe ISIS is the enemy. Not people scared of killing ISIS because they are Muslim too.
Q: Are the people / citizens fighting back?
A: No. Not at all.
Q: Do you remember the Awakening in Iraq when the Sunna tribes who fought against Al-Qaeda, the people started to fight with the US….
A. Now these people are working with ISIS. In Mosul. In Ramadi it’s a different situation.
Q: When ISIS comes in to a city, are they attacking the people, the infrastructure, or how do they come in?
A: The road is open for ISIS. There is no guards.
Q: Before ISIS took some of the military equipment that the Iraqi Army left….
A: its not some, it’s all of the equipment of 2nd Division in Mosul.
Q: A whole division’s worth of equipment.
A: Yes. The Kurdish people took some weapons and equipment back to the Peshmerga and that was good. Some Arab officers and soldiers did the same. But not all of them, they left. the 2nd Divisons headquarters is in al-Kindi Camp. Kindi camp is a really big camp. There was artillery, mortars, humvees, tanks, everything there. they didn’t take anything with them. They left everything there.
Q: What kinds of weapons? Small Arms, AK-47’s, PKM’s, RPKs, RPGs…..
A: Artillery, mortars, special equipment like night visions, even we have…..everything in an Infantry Divisions. A lot of small arms and AK’s, body armor, helmets, they are an army now. They have everything.
Q: They are tactically proficient?
A: Yes, they know what they are doing. They are tactically proficient. You need really strong guys to fight these people, good trained.
Q: Do they fight like an Army?
A: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they fight like militia. Sometimes they fight like Indian – they hit and run away. they have different strategies. It depends on the situation. But in the same time, they have lot of weakness points. The people who joined ISIS don’t have real experience that ISIS has already. In a 30 person platoon of ISIS, maybe 10 or 15 are trained well, they can hold. The others – no.
Q: So there’s a core ISIS
A: Those with a military background, they can fight.
Q: How does ISIS communicate?
A: They have military radios, motorolas, cell phones, everything you can imagine.
Q: Do they have secure communications?
A: No. Nothing’s secure. You can jam them, you can intercept them, you can listen.
Q: Do they ever attempt to mass into one element?
A: No. They cannot do that anymore for two points. The first is the airstrikes. The other point is that they are trying to control everything right now, so they cannot mass.
Q: What’s the largest element that they can mass into?
A: This depends on the situation. They have good communication and reinforcement. If they’re fighting on this street and getting beaten, they can be reinforced quickly. Or they can fall back to another point to counter attack. They know how to fight.
Q: Do they do surveillance and reconnaissance.
A: Yes. But they don’t need to do reconnaissance – they hold the ground. They know the area. They don’t need any specific reconnaissance.
Q: Are the local people giving them intelligence?
A: Many of the local people are supporting them, so absolutely. But that’s not all the locals. The locals can’t escape – they can’t leave their homes. They stay and keep their heads down, but that doesn’t mean they are working with ISIS or like ISIS.
Q: How is the morale?
A: High morale. For ISIS.
Q: How about for the Iraqi Army?
A: Not good.
Q: Do you view ISIS as a capable and worthy opponent and a credible threat?
A: Yes. The Iraqi Army is scared of ISIS. Because of the lack of training. We have the same courses in the Iraqi Army as in the US. But they are drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes and looking at Facebook. Our Lieutenants are not learning anything in these courses. They aren’t getting training in our courses.
Q: It’s the appearance of training, but there’s no substance there?
A: Yes. That’s right.
Q: What’s the current Iraqi Army response to ISIS?
A: We have good units in Iraq. These units have good experience and can deal with ISIS. they know how to fight these people, but we need to fix these units too. Their loyalty of these units isn’t right. The prime minister was the direct leadership for these units. They are loyal to him and the majority of those people are Shia.
Q: What’s the most desperately needed supply for the Iraqi Army? What does the Iraqi Army need?
A: Airstrikes and air support. We need to know who we are fighting, who we are, how much can we stay in the fight….if you account that, do the math, we’ll be screwed up. We didn’t get good training,
Q: The training that the Iraqi Army was receiving from the Americans….was it good training?
A: It was good training, but the problem was the US Army wanted to change the way of training Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army depended on the way it trained for 60-70 years and the US wanted to change it in just a few years. The US needed to change the leadership mindset of the Iraqi Army. If I could change the mindset of our Generals, believe me, the Iraqi Army could change in a few days. If the US Army changed the mindset of our Generals…..the US did a good job of training, but didn’t change the mindset of the leaders. When the US left Iraq, everything came back to the way it was.
Q: How does the Kurdish population view the support of the United States?
A: Kurdish people count on the United States. They like the United States. The Kurdish people are better off than other people. When the Kurds see airstrikes near Irbil, it makes the people happy.
Q: Besides air support, what does the Peshmerga and the IA need from the US?
A: We need American Soldiers. We need to bring American Soldiers here to fight as partners with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. We can take Tikrit, Ramadi, and Mosul if we fight as partners. Fight together. We can control the situation very fast and very quickly.
Q: Do you think the Kurds feel the Iraqi government is supporting the Peshmerga?
A: In the media they’re working together, but in the real life, the Peshmerga is working for themselves, and the Iraqi Army is working for themselves.
Q: How long will this battle between ISIS and Iraq last?
A: This depends. This depends on how much United States will take care of Iraq. The airstrikes could have come 5-6 months ago. If they wanted. They can fix the problem in 1-2 months. Working with Peshmerga, with Special Forces.
Q: Is the Peshmerga receiving any outside support from other countries?
A: Yes, from the French and Europe – that’s not news to anyone. This support is coming direct to Kurdistan. I think. Arms, ammunition, and equipment.
Q: The units in the field today, do they have everything they need? Resupply, maintenance, parts,
A: We need that. Because we don’t have money because of the corruption. We need that. The main mistake, the main issue, it’s corruption. It’s leadership.
You must always go back to the first point, to zero, to fix leadership, fix corruption, fix the government, so everything else will be fixed up.
Q: Is there hope for the Iraqi Army?
A: Is there any hope for the Iraqi Army? Yes.
Q: What’s it going to take for the Iraqi Army to win against ISIS?
Q: Will the Iraqi Army win against ISIS?
Q: Does Iraq have the political will to win?
A: Here, you have to fix the government, not the military. Give everyone their rights, everyone needs to have the right to participate, Shia, Sunna, Kurdish, Christian, Yazidi, everyone – give them rights. The government will be good. If the government’s good, the Army will be good, good leadership. Salaries, rights – and we will fight.
Q: Is there any hope for that to happen?
A: Yes…..and no.
Q: How long will it take? What’s it going to take? To find that political…
A: We need support. We need United States support.
Q: Does the Iraqi Government have the capability and capacity to give the Iraqi Army everything it needs? Pay, uniforms, equipment, training…..
A: We need another hand. To fix the mistakes. If we can put everything right in the Iraqi Government………we need the United States to help. Then we can rise up. We need another side, which is the United States. There is Iran, there is Syria, there is Saudi Arabia, there is Qatar, there is Turkey…..we need a strong power.
We need you.
CPT (P) Chris Mercado. an Active Duty U.S. Army Infantry Officer, will attend the Georgetown Security Studies Program as a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar of the Combating Terrorism Center, USMA. Captain Mercado served three combat deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat advisor, Provincial Reconstruction Team member, and as a Rifle & HHC company commander. You can follow him on Twitter at @Christo96584430.