The Militia Conundrum in Iraq

“This was the soldiers‘ show now. Britain belonged to them, and they belonged to God.”

-Simon Schama, writing of Pride’s Purge of the English Parliament, 1648

The Institute for the Study of War reported last week that Iranian-backed Shiite Militias, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces or the Peace Brigades, are threatening the coalition government in Iraq, as well as spreading rumors that ISIS is a puppet of the United States and Israel.  On the ground, anti-ISIS Sunni tribesmen in Anbar have welcomed the arrival of militia units to complement the Iraqi Army forces battling to regain control of that province. Yet, at the same time, it was the appearance of Hezbollah and Shabiha (Shi’a Syrian Militia) paraphernalia in Iraqi Army columns in Anbar this time last year that prompted some of the Sunni tribes to shelter ISIS and allied groups. As ISIS has proven unwilling to work alongside other militias when they can be absorbed by force, and since it has begun eliminating tribes and leaders who supported the Sahwa, “Awakening”, against it’s forerunners in 2007-2008, it appears that some Sunni tribes are looking down the barrel of a gun either way, and some choose the Popular Mobilization forces to assist them, while others are not convinced or outright hostile. After all, the specter of Shi’a militias conjures memories the brutal sectarian-war-within-the-war that occurred in Baghdad in 2005-2007, and Shi’as no doubt remember the use of Ba’athist militants against their politicians by Saddam’s regime.

The Popular Mobilization has eclipsed the Sunni anti-ISIS forces, who claim they are not receiving enough weapons and support, and have also become a mobile auxiliary to regular Iraqi Army operations. What began as a summer re-mobilization of the pre-existing Shi’a religious militias, notably Jaysh al Mahdi (the Mahdi Army or JAM), to defend the Shi’a pilgrimage sites in Karbala and Samarra slowly became a full-fledged paramilitary. Numbers are uncertain, but over the summer upwards of 50,000 militiamen were supposedly defending Baghdad and its approaches. While not all of those are working as adjunct to Iraqi Army operations or are still in the field, the organisation is large.

A militia, defined as a part-time, largely amateur fighting force, is primarily a tool of expediency for central authority. Semantically what separates a militia or a tribal or ethnic band is different from instance to instance, but a militia’s purpose is usually to preserve local security and provide an elementary skeleton of a military force without having to constantly maintain a large standing force for internal security.  An overwhelming characteristic of militias is that they tend to be spatially oriented to their local area, and control tends to be similarly local, with authority residing in local community leaders or (in the American case) elected leaders. Connections to other militias in unity of purpose tends to be decentralized, with command and control reflecting a radial system of negotiation and communication from cellular unit leader to cellular unit leader as opposed to a direct top-down chain of command of one authority over another. It represents a devolution of control to local leaders or individual commanders, who enjoy considerable latitude to administer forces and direct local operations.

Under pressure to do more than simply protect property, often with the militia becoming synchronized to the interests of a central national or ideological authority, a chain of command historically emerges. In Ariel Ahram’s theory, expounded in Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias, the militias often evolve towards centralization as adjunct or regular forces with state sponsorship, which also sees militia commanders increasingly organized on hierarchical lines for the purposes of better command, control, and sustainment. The extent to which top-down leadership emerges, Ahram argues, has much to do with the requirements on the militia. If it is simply to hold territory and enforce a peace, militias tend to remain decentralized forces bent on local ideological or political enforcement. It is when these forces become adjunct military forces for offensive action, like Iran’s Basij and Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards became during the Iran-Iraq War, that they require additional controls and regimentation so that their actions can be better controlled for high political purposes, and that can be a point of tension where government authority is weak.

Why is this relevant to Iraq? Well, because the Iraqi Army, which still functions as the force directly interfacing with Western assistance, now relies heavily on the militias to do the work of patrolling areas, defending neighborhoods, and manning checkpoints. Some militias are also now actively taking on ISIS with the help of Revolutionary Guard leaders, who have sponsored, alongside Hezbollah contingents, similar militias in Syria. The Iraqi Shi’a militia movement bears similarities to those operating in Syria, though the polarization that has arisen in Syria is not, as yet, as marked in Iraq. Aggressive training in light infantry tactics and a source of external support make Iranian and Hezbollah forces hard to turn down, especially when they supplement otherwise intermittent support from the central government. Similar instruction is going to Kurdish and Sunni militias from UK, Canadian, and American military trainers, both in Anbar and for infiltration into the areas surrounding Mosul for cooperation with the Iraqi Army in the forecast offensive for the liberation of the city (though the announced timetabling has been the subject of fierce arguments which underscore the tension inherent in the situation).

Shia Militiamen Parade in Baghdad, Summer 2014 (Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

Shia Militiamen Parade in Baghdad, Summer 2014 (Photo: Khalid Mohammed)

Admittedly, there have been stumbling movements towards cooperation and mutual assurance between the various anti-ISIS militias. Not only have Sunni tribes called on Popular Mobilization units to assist them when surrounded by ISIS, but, in response to the recent killing of a Sunni tribal leader by Peace Brigade members in Anbar, Moqtada al Sadr (the prominent anti-American Shi’a Cleric and head of JAM) has recalled Peace Brigade fighters in an attempt to “show goodwill“. The pan-Iraqi Nationalist hopes that this is an attempt to show Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems and forestall those arguing for Western intervention, and Sadr is calling for local political parties not to abandon mediation and the government peace process. Yet, as some have argued, Sadr and Iraqi Shi’a Ayatollah Sistani’s religious decrees (fatwas) for Shi’a militia to organize and aid the Iraqi Army in “jihad” may create more panic among Sunnis and Kurds, whose lip-service to cooperation may be a method of obtaining more Western support.

The Peace Brigade and other militias represent, clearly, the weakness of the Army and Iraqi police to protect Iraqi citizens in the short-term, but what is more ominous in the long run is the increasingly devolution of violence and control of militias. That the Popular Mobilization and their Sunni counterparts have arisen is not surprising given the vacuum of civil authority to stop ISIS. What is worrisome is that Sadr’s call is interpreted by some as a demonstration of his power over large portion of the government’s available manpower, or, also worrisome, attempt to rein in those militia groups who are looking to splinter, inspired perhaps by Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, and pursue divergent interests. Indeed, because the local character of militias makes them ideal for short-term solutions and controlling their districts, they also have difficulty being controlled where preferences diverge between ideological or national leaders and local commanders. Some local leaders may take advantage of their new power and military capabilities (which may include buying or grafting items as large as tanks from the notoriously corrupt civil government) to launch their own offensives and local security efforts for ideological or openly venal purposes (collecting debts, taking revenge, etc). Too often in the past, petty warlordism has been responsible for sectarian murder and further antagonism.

It is obviously concerning to Iraq’s new coalition government, and the government has hinged on the reestablishment of a pan-national militia, a National Guard, which can harness local militias under government control and pay, attempting to create an uniformed and outwardly secular force for the advancement of pan-Iraqi goals. Such an attempt failed in 2004, largely because de-Baathification, in which anyone with ties to the Saddam regime was barred for public office, kept Sunnis out of the Guard (including that most precious commodity to paramilitaries, experienced leaders) and the resulting force, composed mainly of Shi’as, suffered continual discipline problems.  What Iraq got instead were local militias, loyal to individual commanders or local authorities who in turn kept them close to important national and transnational power-brokers, Iraqi, Iranian, or American alike.

Sunni "Awakening" Militiamen, 2010 (Photo: Mahmud Saleh)

Sunni “Awakening” Militiamen, 2010 (Photo: Mahmud Saleh)

The paramilitary expansion of Shi’a forces under Maliki’s government (arguably the Baghdad police force became an extension) and then the US bilateral backing of Sunni anti-al Qaeda self-defense militias during the “Awakening” (which Maliki opposed) effectively ended the Iraqi Army’s monopoly on force, while the Peshmerga, a very well-disciplined militia composed of Iraqi Kurds, presented the initial bulwark against ISIS expansion into the Kurdish autonomous region, but also were accused of being enforcers for Kurdish separatism. Overall, preexisting loyalties ultimately have precedent in Iraq in times of internal crisis, and Ahram, writing recently on the effort to recreate the Iraqi National Guard, viewed a pan-national Awakening to be highly unlikely via the medium of a national militia. Indeed, he quotes scholar Adeed Dawisha saying that security in Iraq has, since 2003, arisen “not because of the state, but in spite of it”.

In the end, it is that mutual suspicion and the relative attractiveness for a course of extrajudicial violence that shattered Iraq and may still shatter it. For indeed, if ISIS perishes, the land will, unless endowed with a far better system of administration, have a country filled with semi-permanent, armed, and factional militias and commanders. The recent example of Libya, struggling to disarm and demobilize the militias that toppled Qaddafi and now are threatening the country with a full-blown civil war, or Afghanistan, which suffered disastrous civil war years when the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen factions turned on each other for control of the country, point to danger ahead.

Military necessity and political expediency can help slow ISIS, but the answer (if the Army cannot deliver) will be the necessity to keep ad-hoc formations under arms and fed, with success going to the effective and well-organized (which can also happen to be the most homogeneous, thereby making it unlikely that pan-sectarian militias will emerge organically). Control of these informal auxiliaries, as a rule, still is hurt by the medium of local resistance to central hierarchy, and al Sadr remarked in June when he formed the Peace Brigades that he sought coordination with government forces, but that his people and clerics would retain control over the fighters. This sort of estrangement is already familiar from Maliki’s refusal to pay the wages of Sunni anti-al Qaeda militia after the US withdrew, leaving many men out of work, angry, and armed. Attempts to keep control and disarm militias have never yielded perfect results, and attempting to do so now, with the Army’s ability to defeat ISIS in doubt, is unrealistic.

Iraq’s national political process is still shaky, with regular accusations of Sunni Baathism, Shiite domination, and Kurdish separatism breaking down relations in a regionally divided country. Militias simply present an opportunity for politics to continue with other means. Of particular concern are Maliki’s closeness with Baghdad’s militia leaders, his wins in the recent parliamentary elections, and his remaining on the fringes of the political scene which adds to fears he might launch a coup with the assistance of the Popular Mobilization. So too is the actual combat leadership of Iraqi forces by Iranian Guardsmen, as is the American plan (and the difficulty) of finding Sunnis “moderate” enough to confidently arm to counter ISIS’s influence over the region’s Sunnis, while also building Iraq’s Army for the Mosul Offensive.

This is Iraq’s militia conundrum: the militias are both the symptom of anti-ISIS resistance, but are also further sapping Iraqi unity, creating fears for ISIS to exploit and encouraging factionalism. The expansion of and a reliance on militias, the widespread distribution of arms and rudimentary training, and the self-reinforcing insecurity they bring to a country that has already experienced repeated economic and social devastation does not augur well for peace, which was being maintained unevenly by tribal or sectarian forces operating outside the remit of the national government even before Mosul fell. As Machiavelli expressed it: “Wars begin when you will, but will not end where you please”, and Iraq’s fault lines are lined with militias.

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