(Reuters) - A 17-month U.S. effort to retrain and reunify Iraq's regular army has failed to create a large number of effective Iraqi combat units or limit the power of sectarian militias, according to current and former U.S. military and civilian officials.
Concern about the shortcomings of the American attempt to strengthen the Iraqi military comes as Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militias have launched an offensive to retake the city of Falluja from Islamic State. Aid groups fear the campaign could spark a humanitarian catastrophe, as an estimated 50,000 Sunni civilians remain trapped in the besieged town.
The continued weakness of regular Iraqi army units and reliance on Shi’ite militias, current and former U.S. military officials said, could impede Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s broader effort to defeat Islamic State and win the long-term support of Iraqi Sunnis. The sectarian divide between the majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni communities threatens to split the country for good.
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Critics agree that there have been some military successes, citing the continued victories of American-trained Iraqi Special Forces, who have been fighting Islamic State for two years. But the presence of 4,000 American troops has failed to change the underlying Iraqi political dynamics that fuel the rise and growing power of sectarian militias.
Retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mick Bednarek, who commanded the U.S. military training effort in Iraq from 2013 to 2015, said the Iraqi army has not improved dramatically in the past eight months. He blamed a variety of problems, from a lack of Iraqis wanting to join the military to the resistance of some lower-level Iraqi officers to sending units to American training.
“The Iraqi military’s capacity hasn’t improved that much - part of that is the continuing challenge of recruitment and retention,” said Bednarek. “Our (officers) train who shows up, and the issue is we are not sure who is going to show up.”
Across Iraq, regular Iraqi army units have largely watched from the sidelines as Iraqi Special Forces and Shi'ite militias have reclaimed land from Islamic State, current and former U.S. military officials said. Militias have repeatedly taken advantage of the power vacuums that have emerged after Islamic State defeats.Read More . . . .