Smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of the capital Baghdad, during clashes with Islamic State (IS) militants. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
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Don’t believe the hype: the Iraqi army can win

Is the Iraqi army irremediably useless? Will it cause the government in Baghdad to lose the war? It's not as bad as it seems.

Is Islamic State (IS) really “poised” to descend on Baghdad? That’s what the news headlines would have you believe. But when I arrived in the Iraqi capital, soon after the fall of Ramadi on 17 May, and began to speak to diplomats, politicians and military observers, I realised that even the Iraqi army’s catastrophic mistake in Ramadi didn’t mean that IS, also known as Isis, was winning the war.

From the Iraqi government’s point of view, the worst aspect of the capture of Ramadi was the humiliation. At least 1,500 soldiers were chased out of the city by about 150 Isis fighters. This is what caused the US secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, to go on American television and accuse the Iraqi army of not having the will to fight. (Vice-President Joe Biden later had to ring the Iraqi prime minister and explain that Carter had actually intended to congratulate the Iraqi army on its splendid fighting.)

You can be sure that the main priority of those 150 Isis militants, after settling in and getting down to the business of murdering the people they didn’t like in Ramadi, was not to head down the road to Baghdad. They weren’t “poised” at all. They knew that they had a lot of defending ahead of them right where they were. Even after reinforcements arrived, their overriding instructions will have been to cling on to their positions at all costs.

Regardless, there is no question that the Iraqi army’s behaviour in Ramadi was pathetic. One senior British army officer based in Baghdad believes that it might have been because the Iraqi soldiers had been stuck in the town for months, under siege from Isis. If they had been rotated, as the British rotated their men through the front-line trenches every fortnight or so during the First World War, the brigadier in command of Ramadi might not have been so battle-weary and inclined to fall for an enemy ruse. He seems to have believed that Isis had some kind of super-weapon in the centre of town that would blow up all of his soldiers. He gave orders that everyone should run for it as best they could.

Is the Iraqi army irremediably useless? Will it cause the government in Baghdad to lose the war? In reality, it is no worse than, say, the Syrian army. The problem is one of motivation: it is fighting against an enemy whose levels of motivation and determination are chillingly high. Left to its own devices, without support from within Iraqi society (and without the help of western air power), the Iraqi army would probably collapse quite soon. Much like the brigadier in Ramadi, it would surrender or flee. Isis, then, would indeed be “poised” to attack Baghdad. The streets and the River Tigris would run with blood – just as they did when the Mongols attacked in 1258, after a siege that lasted only 13 days.

Fortunately, the government and the people of Iraq are not alone. The British and the Americans may have been pretty feeble over the past year in their commitment to Iraq but they have not abandoned it. You might think the US and the UK, having broken Iraq comprehensively in 2003, would feel that they had a long-term debt of honour to the country and would ensure its stability. Not so. Barack Obama couldn’t get his troops out quick enough. The same goes for the British.

Besides, the visible presence of foreign troops would do the Iraqi government little good. What is needed is something that was missing in Ramadi: a resilient US, British or Australian lieutenant colonel standing at the Iraqi brigadier’s elbow, pointing out that the Isis ambush of Iraqi special forces was probably just a feint and the rumours of super-explosives were liable to be false. The lieutenant colonel would presumably have a lieutenant and a small squad of soldiers with him to encourage the rest of the Iraqi soldiers to stand firm. Yet the brigadier was on his own and his nerve cracked.

If this sounds irredeemably colonialist, keep in mind that it was the suggestion of a former Iraqi general who is now a distinguished military commentator in Baghdad. He believes that a discreet stiffening of morale by a few selected western soldiers and continuing air strikes are all that’s needed. In politics, at least, a little is usually more successful than a lot. It is a lesson that the Americans seem to ignore, in spite of Vietnam and other little wars around the globe. But the alternative to “too much” should not be “none at all” – something that President Obama does not seem to have learned while in office.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, does have two other important weapons to use in the fight against IS: the volunteers of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, most of whom are Shia Muslims, and the Kurdish peshmerga in the north. Both have a degree of motivation to match that of the Isis fighters and both have shown their worth in Iraq. British journalists consider the Popular Mobilisation Forces to be militias but to Iraqi ears the word carries connotations of ill-discipline and extremism. It makes officials here upset.

So let me state for the record that my new friend Sheikh Ali Dehish does not command a militia. He leads a unit called the Ali Dehish Group, taking part in the drive against Isis to the west of Baghdad. I travelled with him to Garma, near Fallujah and Ramadi. All three places are occupied by Isis, with Garma being the closest to Baghdad. Sheikh Dehish is a charming extrovert, a show-off who wears a (presumably self-designed) uniform that makes him look a bit like Darth Vader – with a black infantryman’s helmet, dark glasses, a black tunic and a camouflage flak jacket. He had an “I heart Iraq” scarf, which he kissed several times while our camera was rolling.

Don’t think for a second that I’m knocking him. Showy characters are what television news requires, even at the battle front. With two teenage sons on either side of him, the sheikh fully understood the part he needed to play. As his men danced behind him, firing their weapons into the air, he gazed proudly through his designer shades as though they, too, were his children.

And Sheikh Dehish is more than a showman. He has a shrewd political sense. Standing on the front line, with the last remaining Isis positions somewhere in the khaki landscape, he stressed that he and his men were there as Iraqis, rather than as Shia or Sunni Muslims. The scarf, naff though it may be, is a way of demonstrating his adherence to the government’s policy of avoiding sectarian friction.

Anbar Province, which lay all around us, is a desert whose few inhabitants are almost all Sunni Muslim. The fear has been that by throwing in ancillary troops (largely Shia militias) to help the army, the government could unintentionally cause a new Sunni-Shia conflict to break out. All that can be done to prevent this is being done. The other day, thousands more refugees poured out of Ramadi, crowding across a single bridge over the Euphrates River in the hope of being allowed into Baghdad. The great majority of them were Sunnis. A group of politicians in dark suits, white shirts and ties suddenly appeared. They were Shia MPs who had brought food and cold drinks for the refugees.

None of the people who had a bottle of water thrust into their hands after three days in the Anbar desert under the broiling sun is likely to forget who gave it to them.

Will the Iraqi government recapture Ramadi within days, as Prime Minister al-Abadi told me it would on 24 May? It depends on how long is meant by “days”, I suppose. The people I trust in Baghdad all agree, however, that Ramadi will soon be taken back. The strategically significant oil town of Baiji, meanwhile, has recently been recaptured. I suspect the government will leave the hostile Sunni town of Fallujah for now, contenting itself with cutting off possible Isis reinforcements. The rest of Anbar Province will take months to clear. Later, perhaps in the autumn, after the summer’s heat has died away, the government will turn its attention to Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which was captured by Isis in June last year.

It won’t throw troops such as those under Sheikh Dehish, or the Kurdish peshmerga, into the final battle in any case. The government will try to ensure that predominantly Sunni units liberate Sunni towns. My guess is that by the time Iraq has a grip on all of these places, its inhabitants will be so glad to be rid of Isis and its bloody ways that the soldiers will be greeted as true liberators. I can just about imagine Sheikh Dehish riding through the streets, smiling, waving at the grateful citizenry. Maybe he will have designed himself a laurel wreath.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.