Tackling Iraq’s Shia Militia Crisis

By: Peter Kirechu

Iraqi Shia Militia Fighters Near Tikrit. Source: Al-Jazeera

Iraqi security forces are engaged in a contentious fight against a determined and effective foe in the self-styled Islamic State (also referred to as IS, ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Iraq’s security sector, while resilient in the face of tens of thousands of jihadist militants has nonetheless required substantial external assistance from the Islamic Republic of Iran and a US-led international coalition. Heeding calls for drastic military assistance against the IS juggernaut, both external powers have expended substantial financial and technical resources in an effort to shift the battleground calculus to the government’s favor.

These external efforts, distinguished mainly by the gradual blunting of the IS’s prior momentum have nonetheless exacerbated a growing rift between the central government and various ascendant Shia militias. The fracturing of the security sector along lines of external sponsorship has since left Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, with the herculean task of navigating a politically volatile environment dominated by opposing US-Iranian interests, and a fledgling balance between Iraq’s internal security forces.

Iraq’s Sectarian Challenge

The problems with Iraq’s security sector are as numerous as they are complicated. Yet, between rampant corruption, extra-judicial application of lethal force, and problematic management of scarce resources, the growing use of sectarian militias remains the most urgent threat to the security sector.

Following Saddam Hussein’s removal from power, Iraq’s official security apparatus fell under the command of former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whose tenure in office characterized him as a polarizing Shia political figure. Under Maliki’s rule the country’s sectarian crises deteriorated further as he increasingly used the state’s coercive instruments to settle political scores and secure his own political survival. This trend escalated with the official withdrawal of US forces in 2011.

However, the marginalization of the Sunni population facilitated al-Qaida in Iraq’s (AQI) return to Iraq under the banner of the Islamic State (then only known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The group launched a ferocious insurgency against the Maliki’s government, capturing Fallujah and most of Anbar province in the Summer of 2013, and in 2014, triggered Maliki’s eventual removal from power. Maliki’s partisan rule  ended when thousands of IS fighters routed the better armed, trained and numerically superior Iraqi military and police forces. These blistering defeats also surged Islamic State ranks with millions worth of US-provisioned military hardware. IS fighters looted banks and swelled their war chests with roughly $2 billion after Mosul’s fall. Once the city was occupied the group expanded its extortion, human trafficking and oil smuggling and theft rackets earning $3 million a day.

Efforts at sectarian reconciliation by Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi have done little to temper sectarian tensions within Iraq’s political society. The government’s dependency on the wide constellation of dominant Shia militia groups (under the general banner of the Popular Mobilization Units, PMU) is an indication of the central government’s overall weakness. Further, these groups serve as a constant reminder to the Sunni population of its subjugation under Shia governance—a grievance commonly employed by the Islamic State in its recruitment efforts. The militias’ material and financial support from the Iranian government similarly undermines the central government’s authority and highlights Iran’s influence on Iraqi domestic affairs.

Within this volatile sectarian environment, Iraq’s new premier must foster reconciliation, not only defeat the Islamic State, but also restore sectarian harmony to ensure the overall stability of the state. This arduous task begins with the security services and its success will likely determine the prime minister’s political fortunes and those of the state writ large.

Taming the Militia Problem

Crafting effective solutions to Iraq’s security sector predicament requires an honest acceptance of Iran’s long-term influence on Iraqi security politics. However, the roles played by Iran and the US coalition need not be mutually exclusive. While Al-Abadi’s government receives aid from both the United States and Iran, the prime minister still maintains executive authority over the allocation and disbursement of military assistance. As each element of the security sector relies on the central government for resources, if the prime minister can reassert his authority over the ministries of defense and interior, the Iraqi government would gain immense leverage over the forces fighting against the Islamic State.

Financial control, if effectively leveraged, will likely serve as both the carrot and stick in the prime minister’s limited toolset when facing an unwieldy relationship between the renegade militias and the slowly improving Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Exercising such power will allow Al-Abadi to selectively reward Shia militias whose conduct is in-line with the central government’s agenda, while sidelining other rogue elements.

The Prime Minister certainly recognizes the precarious position that he currently occupies; overreliance on either the US-led coalition or Iran risks aggravating existing tensions between rival leaders within his governing party. Nonetheless, achieving the terminal goal of expelling IS militants from Iraqi territory will require that the ISF and Shia militias cooperate on the field of battle, while benefiting from continued support from the US coalition. But since Shia militias–specifically those allied with Iran–hold different equities from those of the central government, the Prime Minister requires financial leverage which may be parlayed as political capital to undermine the militias influence.

Given Iraq’s fragile economy which is currently burdened by an austerity budget, an uncertain oil revenue deal with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and globally depressed oil prices, Abadi’s government is in severe need of economic relief. The World Bank completed a  $350 million loan agreement with the Iraqi government in early July, 2014 and this agreement was swiftly followed by 1.24 billion in rapid financial assistance approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States has already commitment $623.8 million in recovery and stabilization assistance in areas liberated from IS. The collective desire of all these programs is to not only facilitate reconstruction, but also lend visibility to the central government as a stabilizing agent. These levels of financial assistance, if well executed, can produce the local effect of undermining militias in areas where they serve as surrogates of the state. Yet these measures which require long-term investment should be complemented by equal commitments to the security sector.

The first of these security-focused measures should target select elements of the Iraqi security sector that are competently functioning, despite numerous limitations. The Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS) as discussed here has served as an apolitical, yet tactically and operationally competent force in the anti-IS campaign. CTS combines with the newly built 16th Army Division and the 76th Brigade to form Counterattack Brigades that have effectively routed IS fighters from Ramadi and are now pushing northwards toward Mosul and its environs.

The expansion of President Obama’s Counterterrorism Partnership Fund provides the necessary equipment and training support to sustain the maturation of these forces, and others like them. A recommitment to presidential engagement between President Obama and Prime Minister Abadi (which may take the form of increasing communication between the two leaders then publicizing these interactions as detailed here) is urgently needed. Raising the level of these interactions provides a strong public image of the United States’ unwavering commitment and support of Iraq’s long-term stability.

Ultimately, the prime minister’s ability to leverage control over financial and technical support from external sponsors confers great internal power that can be used to entice cooperation amongst internal rivals. The task is not simple and requires great diplomatic skill, but if effectively applied it will likely yield favorable results.

Stronger Shia militias will certainly rebuff these efforts, but if a substantial number can be convinced to follow the central government’s lead, those operating outside the government’s mandate will likely ostracize themselves from the general population over time. For Al-Abadi’s aggressive efforts on purse control to succeed, government forces must perform exceedingly well to allay domestic concerns among Shia leaders who seek to exploit the Islamic State’s campaign to advance their independent political agendas. Creating a counterbalance to their influence ensures that all Iraqi security forces operate in a manner that preserves the unity of the state in the post-Islamic State era.

This strategy does not guarantee concessions by Iran, but it does limit Tehran’s delicate grip on the Iraqi security sector. Opposition to the prime minister’s bolder actions on financial and resource distribution vis-a-vis the security sector will continue; Iran is unlikely to relinquish its levers of influence in Iraq absent a strong deterrent from the United States. Since the US-led coalition holds influence on combat operations (as a factor of its air capabilities), the United States must firmly message its support of Al-Abadi’s efforts to limit Iranian meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs.

Risks certainly abound and the proposals provided here require long-term US-Iraq engagement. This is perhaps the greatest handicap of the current US strategy in Iraq. The level of US commitment need not return to pre-2011 levels, but the amount of financial and technical resources currently deployed have the ability to achieve substantial progress in the long-term. Any expectations that Iranian influence in Iraqi politics will completely erode is unrealistic and unrepresentative of Iraq’s current political sphere. The technical approach presented here provides an alternative that builds Iraqi security forces, provides them with the capabilities required to confront unwieldy militias, and provides the economic benefits required for the government to slowly restore its trust within the local population.

Thousands of US-led sorties across Iraqi airspace have, with pronounced effect, limited the self-proclaimed Caliphate’s advances in Iraq. US air superiority, if strategically combined with a united ground component, featuring both mainline forces and responsible PMU militias, will likely accelerate the Islamic State’s defeat. Yet, more importantly, slowly degrading the influence of the militias on the campaign will likely aid  demobilization efforts as the ISthreat recedes and is eventually defeated. The prime minister’s ability to control the influence of Shia militia’s within the security services will ultimately determine the future stability of Iraq.



Peter Kirechu is a graduate student at the Mercyhurst Institute for Intelligence Studies where he focuses on civil strife, insurgencies and counterterrorism. @PeterKirechu


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