Middle East

Islamic State: Is Iraq's army staging a comeback?

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Media captionJohn Simpson on the IS front line with the Iraqi army

"I am telling the West," said Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television last Tuesday, "that dropping bombs from the air will not provide a solution."

He may be right about the town of Kobane, on Syria's border with Turkey. But in parts of neighbouring Iraq the battle against Islamic State (IS) has been entirely turned around with the help of carefully targeted bombing.

Not, of course, that bombing alone is enough. What is required is a properly integrated attack, beginning with bombing and followed up swiftly and effectively by ground troops.

The other day I was driven in a convoy of awkward but heavily armoured Humvees through the scene of a recent battle near the village of al-Yusufiyah, 20 miles (32km) south-west of Baghdad.

The local military commander, Brigadier Jabbar Karam al-Taee, is a shrewd and effective soldier, who commands the 17th division of the Iraqi army. He and his men hold the key to Baghdad. If they fail to stop IS, the city itself will be in real danger.

But they are not failing: on the contrary, they've staged a remarkable comeback - with the support of American warplanes.

As we drove through the village in his personal Humvee, he showed me where the IS forces had been dug in, and where the American bombs had landed. They had been extremely accurate.

Now much of the village is in ruins, destroyed by IS as it pulled out. The buildings were destroyed by booby-trap bombs, the road was cratered by IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

'Leaderless and terrified'

Brig Karram's men are in full charge here.

Image caption Soldiers from Iraq's 17th division drove IS out of the village of al-Yusufiyah, capturing the militants' flag

IS, which has swept into so many towns and villages in Iraq and Syria in the past few months, was forced out unceremoniously, and has taken refuge on the far bank of the River Euphrates, destroying the bridges as it went.

When you talk to his men, you can see the transformation in their morale in the fortnight or so it has taken them to sweep IS aside.

And even more so if you compare the 17th division with other Iraqi soldiers last June.

There is a terrible video, posted on the internet by IS itself, which shows dozens of Iraqi soldiers captured at Spyker army base near Tikrit in central Iraq, weeping and begging for their lives.

Many, perhaps all, of the men whose voices you can hear are swiftly murdered by IS death squads which move among them, shooting them in the back of the head.

Three-hundred-and-fifty of their officers had simply run away and abandoned them, leaving them leaderless and terrified.

Image caption Lt Gen Furaji says many of his soldiers panicked when IS approached the Spyker base

In Baghdad, I met the commanding officer from Spyker, Lt Gen Ali Furaji. He did not run away, but his lined face with the black circles under his eyes showed the level of stress he had endured. He is 44, and looks 20 years older.

Lt Gen Furaji described the terror that had gripped the Spyker base when it became clear that the city of Mosul, to the north, had fallen, and that the forces of Islamic State were heading their way.

Wild stories spread that IS had a thousand vehicles, and were hundreds of thousands strong.

It was then that his officers started to desert. Many were young, and had been given their commissions by the strongly sectarian government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki because they were Shia Muslims, like him.

They panicked and drove out of the camp, while some even started destroying the camp's defences.

Of 2,000 soldiers in the camp, only 61 officers and 440 men stayed with Lt Gen Furaji.

'No longer supermen'

Yet in a matter of a few weeks the situation has changed.

Image caption A growing number of Iraqi soldiers believe they can beat IS - with the help of Western air strikes.

For a start, Iraq has a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi: a Shia Muslim, but one who understands, as Mr Maliki seems not to have, that this country can be governed only with the support of the Sunnis and the Kurds.

One of Mr Abadi's first jobs was to reorganise the army. Many of the young, inexperienced officers have been sacked, and older men who fought in the army under Saddam Hussein have been brought in - plenty of them Sunni Muslims.

The army is being re-equipped with better weapons, and plans are afoot to create a National Guard which is intended to strengthen Iraq's defences against IS.

Driving along the eastern bank of the Euphrates and watching Brig Karram's men, it is already clear that their morale is far higher. They no longer regard IS as supermen.

They believe they can beat them - with the help of Western air strikes.