By ERIC SCHMITT and MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — The stunning collapse of Iraq’s army in a string of cities across the north reflects poor leadership, declining troop morale, broken equipment and a sharp decline in training since the last American advisers left the country in 2011, American military and intelligence officials said Thursday.
Four of Iraq’s 14 army divisions virtually abandoned their posts, stripped off their uniforms and fled when confronted in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit by militant groups, principally fighters aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the officials said.
The divisions that collapsed were said to be made up of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish troops. Other units made up of mainly Shiite troops and stationed closer to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, were believed to be more loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and would most likely put up greater resistance, according to the officials.
Still, Lieut. Gen. John N. Bednarek, who heads the office of security cooperation at the United States Embassy in Baghdad, told a closed hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that some of the Iraqi soldiers who guarded the Green Zone in the capital had come to work wearing civilian clothes under their military uniform, according to one senator. The implication was that the troops were prepared to strip to civilian attire and flee if they came under heavy attack.
“That was a surprise to everybody, to have four major divisions fold as quickly as they did without even fighting,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat on the committee.
Training the Iraqi Army and other security forces was a seminal mission for United States forces before the last American troops left Iraq in 2011. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars to defend against the ISIS militancy, that army is failing at a crucial moment.
The United States spent about $25 billion to train and equip Iraq’s security forces and provide installations for these forces from the start of the war until September 2012, according to a report by the special inspector general on Iraq. And Iraq has spent billions of dollars of its own money since then to acquire or order F-16 fighter jets, M-1 battle tanks, Apache helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles and other weapons.
Although Iraq’s security forces still vastly outnumber the ISIS insurgents — which total 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, the Pentagon estimates — they have been operating with a number of disadvantages, including limited air power, inadequate training and poor leadership.
The rapid gains achieved by ISIS have obscured the fact that it has been making steady inroads in Mosul and other regions for months in a campaign including assassinations and a steady supply of suicide bombers from neighboring Syria.
Even before the fall of Mosul, the Iraqi forces had had logistical difficulties and been battered in their clash with Islamic extremists.
From January through May, six helicopters were shot down and 60 were damaged in battle, an administration official said.
In the same period, 28 M-1 tanks were damaged and five tanks sustained full armor penetration by antitank guided missiles. ISIS, the administration official added, appears to have acquired Russian antitank weapons in Syria. A significant number of M-1 tanks have been hobbled by maintenance issues, the official said.
“They are crumbling,” said James M. Dubik, a retired American lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces during the so-called surge of thousands of United States troops into Iraq in 2007.
“There are pockets of proficiency, but in general, they have been made fragile over the past three to four years, mostly because of the government of Iraq’s policies,” General Dubik said. “They’re losing confidence in themselves and in the government’s ability to win. And the government is losing confidence in them.”
The failure of Iraq’s army and security services to stand up to the Islamist threat also underscores a politicization of the army leadership under Mr. Maliki that has corroded the Iraqi military’s effectiveness at all levels, American officials said.
In one instance a few years ago, a leading Sunni general in northern Iraq whom American officers lauded for his operational skills was ousted and replaced by a Shiite officer. And since the last American forces left Iraq, United States officials said the government in Baghdad had failed to finance and maintain the same training missions.