With Iraq’s security forces now in a belated pushback against last week’s assault by ISIS jihadists, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki has made a big show of encouraging volunteers to take up arms as well. Over the last few days, army recruitment centres have seen long queues of young men forming outside, ready to defend Baghdad from the advancing Islamists.
That’s the idea, anyway. It’s easy to see how this works as a propaganda tactic, distracting the citizenry from the army’s own failings by encouraging them to rise up in patriotic fashion. It casts Maliki as an Iraqi Lord Kitchener, only with stubbly jowls rather than a handlebar moustache, saying: “Your Country Needs You.”
Except that the one thing Iraq really doesn’t need at the moment is more enlisted men.
For a start, the country already has nearly a million enlisted men as it is. The total number of men at arms across the country is estimated at around 900,000, after one takes into account the army, police, secret police, and numerous different “protection forces” that many government departments have set up, some of which have functioned as private militias.
Back in 2007, for example, the ministry of health used to have about 12,000 paramilitaries working for it – rather a lot for a group whose main job was supposed to be protecting hospitals. Not surprisingly, many were said to be involved in Shia death squads, to the point where Sunnis were often afraid to go for hospital treatment.
In other words, there are already so many armed men running around the country that the relatively small cadres of properly professional troops – probably less than 10 per cent of that million figure – stand little chance of stopping a civil war once it gets going.
Secondly, if this enormous force of existing men can’t hold back ISIS in a square fight, then what chance does a bunch of greenhorns straight from a recruitment centre stand? The majority, I suspect, will vanish at the first sign of trouble, just as much of the Iraqi army itself did. More worryingly, the minority who have the stomach for the fight will probably so for all the wrong reasons, seeing this as a chance to settle old sectarian scores with the Sunni militants who make up most of ISIS. Indeed, reports from many of the recruitment centres already suggest that it is predominantly Shias who are signing up.
The sad thing is that this is yet another entirely avoidable act by the Iraqi government, which, intentionally or otherwise, plays into a sectarian agenda. As I’ve written before, the Iraqi army is already seen in Sunni areas as being a tool of Mr Maliki’s Shia government. Indeed, many of its units openly display Shia religious flags on their vehicles and at checkpoints, which in Sunni areas, is the equivalent of police patrolling Protestant Belfast with pictures of the Pope on their cars.
It’s not the kind of thing that any professional army in a multi-confessional country should do. And it goes some way to explaining why the Iraqi army has become so hated in the north that people are prepared to welcome in ISIS instead.
Yet this isn’t just the Iraqi army’s fault. Britain and America, remember, have spent a decade training up the Iraqi security forces, recreating them from almost from scratch in the days after Saddam’s fall, and then mentoring then through academies like the British-run “Sandhurst in the Sand” at Rustamiyah, just outside Baghdad. To this day, the MoD still has an arrangement with the Iraqi army to train its most promising recruits at the “real” Sandhurst in leafy Berkshire. They aren’t just taught how to fire weapons either: they would get drilled in modern hearts-and-mind ethics too, including the importance of being nonsectarian.
But all this soldierly expertise is counterproductive if Iraq’s armies are in the hands of leaders who don’t know how to use them responsibly. So if America and Britain are going to help Iraq out of its current mess, be it by air strikes or otherwise, they should use whatever leverage they gain to insist on some proper reform of the security services.
An army that is a fraction of its current size. A ban on sectarian symbols. And a ban on “recruitment” drives that will just create more gunmen in a country that already has too many.