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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.