- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A U.S. soldier who helped train some of the first post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi forces in 2004 said the nation’s soldiers are likelier to lay down their weapons and flee in the face of a fight because the force is largely devoid of leadership and operating under a fractured government.

The warning by former Army Staff Sgt. Matt Pelak that Iraqi forces believe they have nothing to fight for added relevance this week. Islamic State fighters took control of Ramadi in the latest of a series of victories, often over government forces that simply disintegrate or run away under fire.

“It’s like a car without a steering wheel. We built this car, put an engine in it, it works, it’s great, but it’s going to go wherever it wants. We can’t steer it,” he told The Washington Times this week. “I think that’s what we’re seeing now. I think it’s a governance issue. How can you have a unified military in a country without a unified government?”

Islamic State fighters took control of Ramadi on Sunday as Iraqi forces fled the city, the capital of Anbar province, and left behind U.S.-provided vehicles.

The fall of the symbolic city caused many to question the competency of the Iraqi forces, who also failed to hold the key city of Mosul. Although Iraqi forces succeeded in securing Tikrit this year, the fight was longer and more difficult than expected.

Sgt. Pelak, a trainer for Iraqi forces in 2004, said U.S. soldiers did a good job of preparing Iraqi troops for basic combat but couldn’t teach a desire to fight, a duty to country or a force structure that included midlevel enlisted troops to translate a mission that is often “as clear as mud” to junior service members.

“We trained them in how to do their job. They learned to fire their weapon, but without leadership from the noncommissioned officer level up, that’s all for naught,” said Sgt. Pelak, who continues to serve in the National Guard. “You can have the best forces in the world, but they’re worthless, they’re a just tool without midlevel management.”

The U.S. began training Iraqi troops during the Iraq War but stopped when American service members pulled out of the country in 2011.

Because of the rise of the Islamic State, American troops resumed training for Iraqi Security Forces in December. They have trained about 7,000 Iraqis since then with at least 3,000 more going through the program.

Islamic State fighters scored another major victory Wednesday when they stormed into the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site that has some of the most famous Roman-era ruins and artifacts.

The Islamic State is waging a two-front war against the governments of Syria and Iraq.

Ramadi residents told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday that Islamic State militants were urging them over loudspeakers not to be afraid and to stay in the city.

However, they were not preventing people from leaving the city, said the residents, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of their safety. More than 40,000 people have fled Ramadi and other areas of the Sunni-majority Anbar province in the past week.

The Shiite-led government in Baghdad is struggling to come up with a plan to reverse the astonishing loss, pledging a counteroffensive and relying on Iranian-backed Shiite militia members to join the battle.

Sean McFate, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said a lack of focus on training Iraqi troops before the U.S. withdrawal caused the deterioration of the Iraqi Security Forces.

“During the Iraq War, a lot of attention was paid to counterinsurgency but really not to raising security forces, which was the true exit strategy from Iraq,” he said. “Now this is the legacy of that lack of attention. We really can’t be that surprised given how incompetent U.S. forces were at raising foreign forces.”

Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down as Iraqi prime minister in 2014 after eight years in office, “severely crippled” the Iraqi army after Mr. Obama withdrew all U.S. combat troops, removing a lot of commanders who he felt were threats and appointing political allies who didn’t have the experience to lead troops, Mr. McFate said.

Sgt. Pelak said more junior Iraqi service members lacked a commitment to the fight. Although he worked with good soldiers who served in the Iraqi military before the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam in 2003, he said, many attended training solely to have a job or to support their families.

“The majority of folks were just going through the motions and happy to be getting a paycheck,” he said. “We didn’t feel overly confident about their abilities when they were done with the training cycle.

“You see it in their eyes, when you’re trying to train some Iraqi military folks, there’s no fire,” he said. “They’re just sort of very often confused or lost. It’s not that they’re incapable of fighting; I just don’t think they have a direction. I don’t think they have the unity or the concept of what they’re fighting for.”

Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday that no U.S.-trained Iraqi forces participated in the fight at Ramadi.

Asked why, Col. Ryder emphasized that the battle against the Islamic State is an Iraqi-led fight and where troops go after training “will be an Iraqi decision.”

To fix problems with Iraqi forces in the short term, Mr. McFate said, the U.S. can either rely on foreign militaries such as Iran to take over the fight for Iraq or put its own boots on the ground — both “less than ideal” options for the U.S.

Longer term, Mr. McFate said, the U.S. must focus its mission not just on training and equipping Iraqi soldiers, but also on cultivating leadership, vetting recruits and creating a sense of duty to country.

“We just basically gave out uniforms, gave out weapons and said, ‘You’re now Iraqi soldiers,’” he said. “That’s simply insufficient to create a security force, which is why they crumbled.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Wednesday for putting more American boots on the ground to enable U.S. forces to change the tide of the battle against the Islamic State.

“I know Americans are war-weary, but let me just say this. The current strategy is going to fail,” Mr. Graham said. “We need more American trainers, advisers, Special Forces units, forward air controllers to make sure [Iraqi Security Forces] can win any engagement against [the Islamic State].”

Sgt. Pelak, however, said U.S. ground forces or training won’t make any long-term difference until Iraqis find political unity.

“It’s tempting to want to go over there and try to make a difference, but without that second part of it solved, I just can’t see sending more people to go over there to die,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports from Iraq.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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