Fighters with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia, and Kurdish pesh merga forces on patrol earlier this month in Tikrit, Iraq. REUTERS.Youssef Boudlal Fighters with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia, and Kurdish pesh merga forces on patrol earlier this month in Tikrit, Iraq. REUTERS.Youssef Boudlal

Iraqi Militias: The Tangle of Flags

Thu, Sep. 14, 2017
CAIRO – 14 September 2017: Emboldening and politically legitimizing Iraqi paramilitaries in Iraq heavily contributed to the reinvigoration of sectarian tensions in the country. The world, most importantly the power-holders in Iraq, cannot ignore the fact that sectarian divisions post-2003 fueled violent conflict in Iraq and led to the birth of the Islamic State (IS) group: the root of Iraq’s present instability.

In contrast to present day Iraq, under Saddam the use of paramilitaries to provide security was not present or necessary.

“Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used to boast that the Iraqi army was the fourth-strongest military force in the world. By 2014, many Iraqis had begun claiming that it is lucky if it can be considered the fourth-strongest army in Iraq,” Renad Mansour and Faleh Jabar stated in a report published by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Although the Iraqi army can claim to have improved its capabilities since 2014, the prevalence of militias throughout the country is challenging the future stability of the state.

With the loss of Mosul to the IS, the Iraqi army suffered a systemic collapse. The Iraqi army crumbled in the face of the IS’ assault. Abandoned Iraqi army equipment lay strewn across the floor, alongside the bodies of soldier and civilian alike, in a symbolic image of deteriorating state control.

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Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) celebrate on vehicles taken from Iraqi security forces, at a street in city of Mosul, June 12, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

The population lost all faith in the formal military structure.

Then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to seek out and legitimize a new foundation for the security services, and in June 2014 he signed an official decree that consolidated a plethora of paramilitaries under one distinguishable body: the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

This more directly violated the Iraqi constitution: “The formation of military militia outside the framework of the armed forces is prohibited,” Article 9, paragraph B of the Iraqi constitution states. However, little was beyond al-Maliki’s growing authoritarian rule.

Al-Maliki’s move was bolstered and importantly legitimized by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious figure in Iraq, who, in June 2014, issued a fatwa calling for all Iraqis to volunteer and join the security forces. People listened and enlisted in their thousands, although, contrary to al-Sistani’s wish, they joined militia ranks as opposed to the security forces, who the public viewed as being in total disarray.

Sectarian tensions in the post-2003 environment

Sectarian identities were already institutionalized before the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam’s Ba’athist government and played an important role in post-Ba’athist post-2003 Iraq.

“Rivalry between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority in Iraq has been at the center of political conflict in the state since then-president Saddam Hussein fell in 2003,” Harith Hasan Al-Qarawee stated in a report published by Carnegie Middle East Center.

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An Iraqi man reacts as he enters a building that was destroyed in a suicide-bombing attack in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, the largest attack since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion which killed an estimated 300 people. AFP.Ahmad al-Rubaye

Sectarian conflict became increasingly prevalent with the 2003 US-led invasion and erupted between 2006 and 2008 as a violent conflict between Shiite and Sunni militias engulfed the country. Group polarization became widespread, while suicide attacks, attacks on civilians and attacks on religious sites became a common feature of the conflict.

Between 2006 and 2008, sectarian conflict made Iraq one of the world’s top 5 most unstable states, according to the Fragile States Index, a yearly study completed by the Fund for Peace.

Sectarian divisions were intensified when al-Maliki was elected Prime Minister in 2006. With the removal of Saddam, the Shiite majority finally ruled Iraq after centuries of repression. However, the tension surrounding sectarian divisions never wavered as al-Maliki used sectarianism as an instrument to mobilize support and establish a conflicting “us vs. them” dichotomy.

As al-Maliki’s leadership became increasingly authoritarian, systemic polarization of existing groups within society, along with the marginalization of the Sunni minority, fueled discontent with the ruling elite among the Sunni community.

“We know not just from recent Iraqi history but from cases around the world that the persistent exclusion and repression of an ethnic or sectarian group, especially one as well-organized and well-resourced as Iraq’s Sunnis, is likely to produce violent uprisings,” Dr. Ches Thurber, professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, told Egypt Today.

From this sectarian conflict, the roots of the IS were formed. Its existence in Iraq was as a fierce insurgency group, indiscriminately attacking foreign forces as well as Shi’a militias and civilians.

Under the name ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, and under the leadership of al-Zarqawi, the group was infamously credited with transforming the counter-coalition insurgency into a sectarian war.

Sunni alienation and discontent provided the IS with a saturated support base, which allowed its roots to strengthen and spread through Iraq and neighboring Syria.

U.S. security officials warned al-Maliki

in 2014 that his government was causing worrying levels of animosity, which would only fuel discontent and empower violent militant groups, such as the IS.

In 2014, the IS seized control of one-third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and an important industrial base. The ease at which the group managed to advance was not only shocking through a humanitarian lens, but was also the cause of great concern to strategic observers and stakeholders. How had Iraqi security services collapsed so easily?

“[Mosul proved that] the Iraqi army is a failed institution at the heart of a failing state,” Reuters reported in 2014.

Conspiracies range from the security services collaboration with the IS to foreign involvement aiding IS’ push, all up to al-Maliki relinquishing Mosul to cause instability and allow for greater authoritarianism. In a region as tumultuous and uncertain as the Middle East, who’s to refute any one of these ‘conspiracies’?

Yet the U.S. had funneled billions into the Iraqi army as well as providing essential training and logistical support, with the expectation that the state would establish a monopoly of legitimate physical force and thus function as an effective state. However, the Iraqi army capitulated.

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Iraqis carry a portrait of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as they march in support of him in Baghdad. Al-Maliki is argued to have fueled sectarian conflict during him time as Prime Minister. REUTERS.Ahmed Saad

Al-Maliki’s alienation of the Sunni community was a major factor for how Mosul was captured by the IS with ease. Not only did his alienation of Sunnis lead to many young men joining its ranks, but it provided the IS with a support base in the city of Mosul when the group captured the city.

The Iraqi army in Mosul was widely disliked by the population

. Corruption was rampant, and oppression was uncontrolled; public services, such as utilities, were inconsistent, checkpoints hindered travel throughout the city and the simple dishonesty of those in control hindered the self-determination of the city’s residents.

This is not to say that all Mosul’s residents welcomed the IS; however, reports show that many people felt safer and unimpeded under its rule.

“Mosul now lives in a golden era,” Ghazwan Abdul Rahman, a civilian living in Mosul, said to The Guardian in 2015. “They are most welcomed in Mosul … they have offered to protect Sunni people from the Shi’a army’s inhuman practices”.

“Mosul before ISIS was like a grand, horrifying prison,” commented Basheer Aziz, another civilian in the city.

Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces

No official figures exist on the actual size of the PMF. Estimates, however, range between 60,000 and 140,000, with a more realistic estimation occupying the lower end of this scale. With this, it is made up by an estimated 50 separate groups, whose numbers vary greatly.

Three principal camps are distinguishable within the PMF: pro-Khamenei (Iran), pro-Sistani and pro-Sadr.

Many militias that were influential in the post-2003 insurgency have reformed under the PMF. For example, Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq served Tehran as Iranian proxies during the occupation and continue to do so, now under the auspices of the PMF. Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organization, is a close friend of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force — a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with covert missions beyond Iran’s borders.

Al-Amiri, alongside the administrator of the PMF, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, wield the greatest power in the PMF. Their relationship with Tehran is closer than that with al-Abadi and Baghdad, and they channel the PMF’s state allocated finances to their chosen Tehran-allied groups.

The militias backed by Tehran have gained military resources from Iran, while Baghdad has provided political legitimacy and financial support. Reducing Tehran’s influence in Iraq is a fundamental and complex challenge for Prime Minister al-Abadi.

“One of the greatest risks that Abadi faces is the steps that he might take to hinder the influence of the militias — such as asking Sistani to issue a fatwa instructing the fighters to return home or pushing for full integration into the army. This will result in the demobilization or integration of the militias most loyal to the Iraqi state but not those most closely connected to Iran,” said Dr. Thurber.

Unless Tehran is prevented from promoting the advancement of Shiite goals and the alienation of Sunnis in Iraq, the conditions which led to the rise of the IS would be prevalent.

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Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants, carry weapons and a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a parade in in Baghdad's Sadr City, June 14, 2014. REUTERS.Wissm al-Okili

Al-Sadr’s ‘Saraya al-Salem’ organization, operating under the PMF, was a rebranding of ‘Jaysh al-Mahdi’, a prominent force in post-2003 Iraq, and arguably the most feared Shiite militia.

While many militias were awoken by covert Iranian calls for action, pro-Sistani militias, such as the Abbas Division, were motivated by his nationalist-religious fatwa to defend Shiite holy sites and maintain the sanctity of the country.

The PMF has been very successful in ridding cities of IS control, for example during the Second Battle for Tikrit, and played an important role in the Mosul offensive.

Al-Sistani’s fatwa, in combination with the poor reputation of the Iraqi army, led to the unprecedented popularity of the PMF and unsustainable levels of enrollment, which was only propelled further by the success of the anti-IS campaign.

In August 2015, 99% of Shiite respondents supported the use of the PMF in the battle against IS, according to a

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research

poll.

The present will dictate the future

A state is a “human community that [successfully] claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” in the famous words of Max Weber.

Can the Iraqi government realistically claim to manage this? The answer is simple: no.

The Iraqi state no longer retains effective control of a military apparatus. Although the PMF has played an important and successful role, its success is a double-edged sword.

While helping to rid the country of the IS’ influence, its achievements has proven its effectiveness. This provides a stronger motive for Tehran to maintain the strength of its allied Iraqi militias, since they can legitimately claim they contribute to the stability of Iraq, while also advancing Iran’s interests — thus, complicating the future stability of Iraq.

Campaigns such as the Battle for Mosul have displayed the newfound strength of the Iraqi army, yet its contrast in strength with the PMF remains an issue. The state needs to re-establish the monopoly of violence, which puts the future of the PMF into question.

Integration of the PMF into the army remains a key question and is a key distinguishing feature between the three identifiable factions.

“The pro-Sistani and pro-Sadr groups call for the disbandment or integration of the paramilitaries, whereas the pro-Khamenei group calls for state recognition of the PMF as an independent institution. Abadi, representing the state, is stuck between these forces,” Renad Mansour and Faleh Jabar stated in a report published by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Tehran wishes to retain control of its allied militia groups on the ground in Iraq, as well as Syria, which represent Tehran’s, and its desire to control a stretch of land reaching to the Mediterranean. In contrast to al-Maliki, Al-Abadi will not allow this to happen within the official security apparatus, and thus the militias allied with Iran will likely attempt to remain autonomous and operational.

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Iraqi Shi'ite militia fighters demonstrate their skills during a graduation parade in Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, October 2, 2014. REUTERS.Mushtaq Muhammed

“Sadr and the Sistani clerical establishment wield considerable non-military political power. For the other militia leaders, their power comes more exclusively from their ability to use violence. Sadr and Sistani want to see the militias folded into to the army because it will strengthen their hand vis a vis (with regards) the other militia leaders,” said Dr. Thurber.

It is more appropriate to think of the PMF not as an apparatus, but as an internal proxy battlefield between domestic and foreign actors in the struggle for the top-spot. The PMF is a microcosm of Iraqi society, and reflects fault lines that are so prevalent: religion, ethnicity, national identity, state and non-state actors, foreign influences, the perusal of self-interest.

As made clear, al-Sistanti and al-Sadr have declared they favor a strong state military over the PMF, meaning the future lies in how Iranian influence in Iraq is dealt with.

Yet, these fault lines need to be blurred.

The overtly Shiite nature of said militias could severely damage Sunni-Shiite relations in Iraq if they continue to remain autonomous.

A Shiite power struggle cannot continue to dominate the political atmosphere and alienate the Sunni population, adding fire to the flames. Respect is a key feature al-Abadi, al-Sistani and al-Sadr need to enforce.

These three figures will determine the future of Iraq. Al-Sistani and al-Sadr share a dislike of Iranian influence in the country, and the hope remains that they can coordinate to rid the country of Iranian influence without conflict. It is arguable that the entrenchment of an effective Iraqi security apparatus would achieve this, but loyalties must remain to the state, and not to foreign interests.

The notion of a national community needs to surface as a unifying narrative to remove sectarian troubles. However for the state to operate effectively, a national consciousness must be developed which thinks of the many, and not of the few.
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