Iraqi soldiers can fight. That’s something Americans serving alongside them have not always said with complete confidence. At the individual and small-unit level, Iraqis have been fighting well for close to three years. But only now are U.S. troops seeing the dramatic kinds of improvements and capabilities among the brigade and division-sized Iraqi units that one might expect from similarly trained Western forces.
Much of the success of the Iraqi army is a result of training and operational leadership on the part of coalition forces, primarily — at least from my vantage point while there — U.S., British, and Australian soldier-instructors. But there’s another factor: One that has only been a variable in the mix for less than two years: The new Iraqi officer corps.
Iraqi officers today are — by and large — hard-working, battle-seasoned, and generally incorruptible. There are exceptions, (as in any army), but as Iraqi Brigadier General Ishmayil Shihab Muhammad says, “We will deal with them.”
At 42, Gen. Ishmayil is the face of the new officer corps: An old corps commander in the new army, who demands adherence to exacting standards of loyalty to post-Saddam Iraq and a commitment to fighting terrorists. Ishmayil is a career officer whose combat-leadership experience stretches back to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) when he was a second lieutenant. Today, he commands the 2,100-man 3rd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division, a crack force of infantry that now operates as lead security in the extreme west of Al Anbar Province. The U.S. Marines, who have trained and conducted missions with the brigade for well over a year, continue to operate in the region, but only in a “tactical overwatch” capacity.
“This brigade continues to conduct offensive operations to disrupt insurgent activity as they provide a secure environment for the people of the region to provide for their livelihood,” Lt. Col. Jason Bohm, the task-force commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, told National Review Online last week. “The brigade is now receiving orders directly from its higher headquarters, the 7th Iraqi Army Division, and issuing orders directly to its subordinate battalions without having to work through us.”
Before leaving Iraq last month, I sat down with Gen. Ishmayil at his Al-Qaim headquarters near the Iraqi-Syrian border. Also present were an Iraqi interpreter, a few Marine officers, including Bohm and Col. Dave Thompson (the Military Transition Team officer-in-charge), and Gen. Ishmayil’s aides who frequently entered his office serving us tea throughout the interview. It was an honest conversation, forthright about the good and the bad. Ishmayil readily admits the Iraqi army is not what it was 20 years ago in terms of esprit d’corps. But it’s gradually evolving into a respected fighting force, one that has earned the trust of the Iraqi people, and one that — in terms of his own brigade — is now operating independently of U.S. forces.
W. THOMAS SMITH JR.: General, what do the American people need to understand about the Iraqi army that perhaps they do not understand?
BRIGADIER GENERAL ISHMAYIL SHIHAB MUHAMMAD (speaking through an interpreter): You must first know that from the period 2003 through 2005 — when we were establishing the new IA [Iraqi Army] — the main concern was quantity, not quality.
SMITH: That’s been the Achilles Heel of the IA?
GEN. ISHMAYIL: This was the basis for the IA. The officers recruited for the army during that time did not come from the academies. They were just brought in — often without any experience — and given high rank. They were not qualified to lead, and so they were not capable. This was the wrong basis on which to establish the army.
SMITH: Has this changed?
GEN. ISHMAYIL: Yes. Since 2005 we have been looking more critically at the officers. Today, it is more important to us than anything else, that officers have previous military experience and proper training.
SMITH: What are some of the biggest challenges today facing the army?
GEN. ISHMAYIL: Three challenges: First, recruiting and training qualified officers and non-commissioned officers capable of doing the job. Second, do those officers and NCOs have the loyalty necessary to serve their country and their country’s leaders, as opposed to loyalty to any militia or terrorist group? Third, making sure the army has proper weaponry, because in some instances the terrorists have weapons that are more sophisticated than the IA.