Iraqi Counter-Insurgency Tactics under Fire

Andrew McGregor

June 13, 2014

Ineffective military tactics may have caused more damage to relations between the Iraqi National Army (INA) and the disaffected Sunni population of northwestern Iraq than to the targeted Islamist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS Forces Crossing into Iraq from Syria (AFP)

Prior to the abandonment of Mosul to ISIS forces, local Sunni politicians were calling on the government to avoid the use of indiscriminate bombing by mortars or warplanes in efforts to expel the Islamist insurgents. Citing heavy civilian losses as the result of such tactics, the local politicians urged a greater reliance on intelligence and cooperation with local authorities (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 9).

Reliance on such broad responses rather than engaging with the enemy directly was indicative of the low morale and poor leadership plaguing Iraqi military forces in northern Iraq. As seen in Mogadishu and elsewhere, indiscriminate bombing of urban areas rarely damages insurgent assets or personnel while alienating and angering the local population to the point they are unwilling to work with or support government forces. Reports of the use of crude barrel bombs by Iraqi aircraft in the region have only reinforced local attitudes that government forces have no interest in the safety of the civilian population. As suggested by their name, barrel bombs are simple barrels equipped with a fuse and filled with fuel, explosives and scrap metal. Widely used in the Sudanese government’s campaign in Darfur (where they inflicted terrible casualties amongst civilians but rarely against more mobile rebel groups), these untargeted projectiles have now come into use by government forces in Syria and Iraq (AFP, May 27; AP, June 9).

As ISIS fighters entered Mosul, Iraqi Army discipline appears to have evaporated, with reports of the army’s leaders and officers fleeing the city (sometimes in civilian clothes), abandoning their troops to their fate at the hands of an insurgent force that was only a fraction of the size of the well-equipped government garrison – some 65,000 government security personnel vs. some 2,000 to 3,000 lightly-armed ISIS fighters (Al-Monitor, June 11). The government has announced it will apply strict punishments to those who fled the city (particularly officers), though it may be a bit late to instill a sense of discipline into an Iraqi military with little interest in fighting the Salafi-Jihadists of ISIS.

Baghdad’s failure to reach understandings with Sunni tribal elements or to incorporate Sunnis in substantial numbers into government security structures are primary causes of the military failure in northern Iraq. Local forces have also failed to coordinate with more experienced Kurdish peshmerga militias or to develop effective intelligence networks, something complicated by the fact most of the military units deployed in the Sunni north hail from the Shiite south. Relations have deteriorated to the point some Iraqi Sunni politicians now point to an alleged hidden Shiite agenda involving a deliberate failure to secure northern Sunni-dominated cities in order to provide an excuse for their destruction (Iraq Pulse/al-Monitor, June 9).

On the other hand, the Army’s opponents have developed a number of effective approaches to asymmetric warfare that have allowed Islamist fighters to succeed against far larger government forces.  ISIS tactics that have been successfully used in the Islamist offensive include:

  • Creating new entry points to urban regions
  • Intimidation of local tribes (including the recent assassination of Sahwa [Awakening] leader Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha in Ramadi)
  • Suicide attacks
  • Kidnappings
  • Use of car-bombs and other IEDs
  • Summary executions of presumed or potential opponents
  • Attacks on Iraqi Army convoys to prevent resupply or reinforcement
  • Brief occupations of settled areas, withdrawing before government forces can recover for a counter-attack
  • Attacks on Shiite shrines and holy sites such as the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra (the essential religious/sectarian component of Salafi-Jihadist warfare)
  • Exploitation of superior skills in urban warfare
  • Establishment of control over border points with Syria, allowing greater interaction with ISIS and other Islamist groups deployed there
  • Simultaneous attacks in multiple regions to scatter and diffuse the government response
  • Massive displacement of urban populations puts additional pressure on the central government’s response
  • Infiltration of ISIS cells into Baghdad neighborhoods ready to mount internal attacks during, or more likely, instead of an immediate full-scale assault on the capital.

The weapons, war materiel and cash reported to have fallen into insurgent hands in recent days will enable ISIS to expand its campaign and attract experienced foreign fighters through the network the group has built up in neighboring Syria. Proposed American air strikes may have the ability to deter ISIS from advancing on Baghdad in the short-term, but will have little impact on the systemic problems afflicting the Iraqi military and its political direction.

This article was first published in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.