Made in America, But Lost in Iraq

U.S.-made tanks that fell into militia hands have sparked a standoff with Baghdad over assistance.

An Iraqi army M1A1 Abrams tank on its way to Mosul, on Nov. 4, 2016. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi army M1A1 Abrams tank on its way to Mosul, on Nov. 4, 2016. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. company that repairs Iraq’s American-made M1A1 Abrams tanks has pulled many of its people from Iraq after at least nine of the armored vehicles ended up in the hands of pro-Iran militias. Now, many of Iraq’s tanks are immobilized for want of maintenance, potentially jeopardizing the country’s ongoing campaign against Islamic State militants.

While the Islamic State has retreated from large swaths of Iraq it once controlled, mobile groups of militants continue to stage attacks on Iraqi troops and their allies. An Islamic State attack near the city of Hawija in mid-February reportedly killed 27 militiamen fighting for Baghdad.

Iraq bought 140 of the 63-ton M1s for $2 billion starting in 2008 in order to re-equip some armored units that previously operated Soviet-made vehicles — many of which the U.S.-led coalition destroyed when it invaded Iraq in 2003.

As part of the tank sale, the Pentagon brokered an arrangement whereby workers from Michigan-based General Dynamics Land Systems, which manufactures the Abrams, would maintain Iraq’s tanks, repair battle damage and train Iraqi mechanics to fix the vehicles themselves. The U.S. Army has paid General Dynamics $320 million for the work starting in 2012.

Then in late December 2017, most of the General Dynamics contractors abruptly left Iraq. “We were informed that the [U.S. government] shut the program down until such time [as] the few M1s are returned to us,” one contractor told Foreign Policy on the condition we not print their name, as they’re not authorize to speak to the press.

Now, scores of Iraq’s M1s are “not battle-ready,” the contractor added. That represents a major reduction in the Iraqi army’s firepower.

The M1s with the four crew members and 120-millimeter cannons were in the thick of the fighting when Islamic State swept across northwestern Iraq in the summer of 2014. The Islamic State captured several M1s, compelling U.S. warplanes to target them in air strikes.

Other M1s led Iraq’s U.S.-backed counterattack starting in 2015. In April 2016, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a coalition spokesman in Baghdad, celebrated the crew of of one M1 nicknamed “Beast,” which took part in fierce fighting in the city of Hit.

As early as 2015, at least nine M1s showed up in the arsenals of several pro-Iran militias that have been fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army, according to a quarterly report from the inspector general for the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Syria, released in February.

In January 2015, a video circulated depicting an M1 flying the flag of Kataib Hezbollah, which the United States has labeled a terrorist group. A second video from February 2016 showed an M1 flying the flag of Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada, another militia with ties to Iran.

In February 2018, the U.S. military and State Department finally admitted that pro-Iran forces were operating M1s. The militias seized some of the M1s from the Islamic State after militants captured them, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson told FP.

One M1 fought on the side of pro-Iran militias in skirmishes with U.S.-backed Kurdish troops in the city of Kirkuk in October 2017. The Kurds disabled the M1. Not long after, the burned-out vehicle showed up at General Dynamics’ facility in Iraq, the contractor said.

“As recipients of U.S.-origin defense equipment, Iraqi authorities have an obligation to adhere to end-use requirements as outlined in agreements concluded with the United States government,” a Central Command spokesperson told FP. The command said Baghdad had managed to get back “several” of the tanks.

The General Dynamics contractor said in late February that just two M1s remain unaccounted for. But the return of seven of the nine missing M1s apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy the State Department and Pentagon.

In December, American pressure on the Iraqis increased, but the Iraqis believed the Americans were bluffing, the contractor said. “We spoke multiple times weekly with the [Iraqi army] and the [Iraqi ministry of defense] and they did not believe we would leave until the final 10 days, basically.”

Technically, the U.S. Army’s deal with the Iraqi military to provide contractors to maintain the tanks remains in effect. “The M1 Abrams maintenance program for the Iraqi security forces is still currently active, and there is no plan to discontinue this program in the near future,” a coalition spokesperson told FP.

But for all practical purposes, the tank-maintenance effort is in limbo until the Iraqis get the last two M1s back from the militias. At present, just 10 General Dynamics employees are still in Iraq as part of the M1 program, the contractor said. Their only job is to protect the dozens of broken-down and battle-damaged tanks that remain in storage.

A General Dynamics spokesperson declined to comment on the issue. The Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to a request for comment. 

The contractor expressed pride in his work in Iraq. He said his team rebuilt most of Iraq’s 140 M1s “three times over,” and repaired one “blown-up” tank in just 20 minutes and sent it back into battle.

The Iraqi army can’t maintain the tanks without American help, the contractor said, and now as many as half of Iraq’s M1s await repairs.

David Axe is a freelance reporter based in Columbia, South Carolina

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