The Iraqi Military Won’t Survive a Tug of War Between the United States and Iran

Sectarian tensions have already hobbled the force. The competition between Washington and Tehran could break it.

A picture taken during a press tour organized by the U.S.-led coalition shows U.S. soldiers clearing rubble at Ain al-Assad military airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, on Jan. 3.
A picture taken during a press tour organized by the U.S.-led coalition shows U.S. soldiers clearing rubble at Ain al-Assad military airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, on Jan. 3. Ayman Henna/AFP/Getty Images

After a U.S. drone strike killed a prominent Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, at the Baghdad international airport earlier this month, and Iran responded with strikes on Iraqi bases that housed U.S. troops, the future of the Iraqi military has been very much up for discussion.

If the conflict between Iran and the United States escalates, the Iraqi military will be tasked with both ensuring Iraqi stability and negotiating between the two major powers, which each have a stake in its operations. But both tasks may be too much to ask from an organization that recently suffered enormous causalities in the war with the Islamic State and is barely holding the country together during a wave of anti-government protests. More fundamentally, the armed forces are hamstrung by a complex infrastructure designed to keep the military ethnically balanced—a good idea in theory but one that has led to problems at both the upper levels of the armed forces and among the rank and file.

To ensure that the Iraqi military includes representation from all major groups within the country’s population, many of the highest-level military positions are allocated by sect or ethnic group. For example, if a Sunni Arab commander retires, he must be replaced by a Sunni Arab, whether that person is the most qualified person in line for the position or not. Haggling over these appointments slows them down, and the process can sometimes take years.

Things get even more complicated when it comes to Kurdish commanders, who must be recommended by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Because Kurdistan is itself divided, when the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the governing party, makes a recommendation, it must first consult with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the main opposition. The result is that political acceptability is prized over military skill.

Despite the quotas on hiring, the force still doesn’t seem balanced to many in it. According to a Sunni solder we interviewed in January, “Although we have around 30-40 percent Sunni in top military ranks, they do not have as much power as Shiite ones. We have Sunnis with the rank of general working office jobs or are on standby, men on salary waiting for appointments.” In other words, Sunni generals are hired so that their ranks stay balanced, but they are relegated to lesser jobs.

The dangers of Iraq’s quota system were particularly visible after the battle of Mosul in 2016 and 2017, when many Iraqi special operations commanders died or retired. Some of the top figures were still not replaced by the end of last year. Amid extra pressure on the government in December 2019 due to anti-government protests, Baghdad even took the extraordinary step of trying to recall a retired commander, Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aradi, to take one of the unfilled positions. They were not successful; al-Aradi was not confirmed because of his age. (He is said to be about 69.)

Another danger of the system is that, to the extent that Iraqi support for the United States versus Iran is divided along ethnic lines, the military could replicate such rifts, with dangerous consequences for strategic coherence.

The situation in other quarters of the Iraqi military is not much better. For years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the rank and file of the Iraqi military was thought of as being too heavily Shiite. According to David Witty, a retired U.S. special operations colonel who served as a military advisor to Iraq, when the United States started withdrawing in 2009, the “Iraqi military was becoming increasingly Shia-centered.” By 2011, he told us this month, “many even previously recruited Arab Sunnis and Kurds left.” That set the stage for what followed: Prior to its march through Iraq starting in 2014, the Islamic State used Sunni discontent with the armed forces for recruitment. Some Sunni members of the military even abandoned their posts to join the militant group.

But over the course of the battle against the Islamic State, the situation started changing. Some important military positions, including head of military in Nineveh (a Sunni-majority region), were given to Arab Sunni military commanders. And ultimately, seeing the success of the military–particularly the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), against the Islamic State, many young Sunni men from territories that had been occupied by the militant group were eager to enlist. But they were largely unsuccessful, namely because of the way the armed forces are internally organized.

The ISOF is the only branch of Iraqi military that does not have ethnic quotas and promotes on merit alone. But to ensure the highest possible quality of soldiers in the force, enlistment requirements are very strict. Not surprisingly, individuals who have connections to terrorist organizations (for example, through family members) aren’t allowed. Unfortunately for potential Sunni recruits from territories held by the Islamic State, it is almost impossible to meet that requirement. That leads to underrepresentation of Sunnis in the armed forces. It also leads to another generation of would-be soldiers feeling discriminated against due to their family or ethnic backgrounds. That’s an issue the Islamic State—or group like it—could easily exploit once more.

Despite all the force’s problems, Iraqi civilians still look to the military as a defender. During recent demonstrations, which were against corruption in politics and lack of opportunities of young people, protesters demanded that Army Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi—who was a member of the ISOF and is viewed as a nonsectarian, nonpolitical hero of the Battle of Mosul—be given a high position in the government. They didn’t get their wish, partially because it is against the law for members of the military to take government positions. The request even led to further political conflicts inside the military force, as many members of the military saw Saadi as using public support to achieve military promotion. Nevertheless, the episode did show public trust for the military among civilians.

In the battle against the Islamic State, the Iraqi military demonstrated its worth. But it is not built to solve political problems, namely sectarian tensions at home and the competition between Iran and the United States abroad. And its quota system, although perhaps necessary given the country’s current political fragility, makes it particularly slow to respond to any changes of the environment and harms professionalism. Meanwhile, in their proxy war, both the United States and Iran are putting pressure on the Iraqi military to choose a side. But the more they try, the more likely the Iraqi military is to fall casualty to their showdown. And Iraq losing a professional military force, trusted by its citizens, is something that neither Iran nor the United States could afford.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov

Dara Tahseen Assi is an Iraqi journalist.