The events that have transpired in Nineveh province, namely the meek capitulation of Iraqi troops against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), do not provoke suspicions about the existence of conspiracies and treasons. Rather, they mainly give rise to questions concerning the nature of the ruling political structure that has failed to produce any state based arrangement for a functioning army or any other institution.
To begin with, armed militias are part and parcel of that structure reinstated following the occupation of Baghdad in April 2003. Their influence continued to increase—both vertically and horizontally—along with the aggravation of the crises of the successive Iraqi governments. Thus, not only did these militias become intertwined with the political movements. In many instances, militias were the driving force behind such movements as Badr’s Corp (Failaq Badr) and League of the Righteous (‘Asayib Ahl al-Haq), both of which established political blocs that ran in the municipal and parliamentary elections.
They All Want to “Protect the Revolution”
Militias are not merely an outcome of the post-occupation era as contemporary political history in Iraq was introduced to armed militias with the establishment of the republican regime in 1958. That period witnessed an intense conflict between Iraqi Communist party and Iraqi Ba`th Party as well as other nationalist movements. Communists formed the "popular resistance" with the aim of “protecting the revolution” and quickly turned into a force that subjugated the people.
Five years after Abd al-Karim Qasim`s ascendance to power, the Iraqi Ba‘th Party engineered a coup d`état against the nascent republic in February of 1963. Immediately after gaining power, the Iraqi Ba`ath party formed a militia of Ba`thists dubbed the “National Guard” that wrought havoc across the country, committed massacres and raped girls under the pretext of “safeguarding the revolution and fighting its enemies.” Such practices helped topple the coup regime only eight months later by another coup staged by Abdul Salam Arif who dissolved the militia and put its members on trial.
The scenario was repeated following the July coup of 1968 which was carried out by Baathists against Abdul Rahman Arif, brother of Abdul Salam who was assassinated in 1966. Seeking to “protect the revolution,” the new regime formed a militia called the “popular Army” which was no less corrupt than previous militias. It was not, however, limited to organized Ba‘thists for it also counted among its ranks Iraqi youth who did not come from the army, particularly during the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988. This paramilitary force constituted the reserve troops for the army during that war, and later became fuel for the war when its members were thrown into the mold without proper training.
During the 1990s, Uday Hussein, eldest son of former president Saddam Hussein, formed what was called “The Legion of Saddam`s Fighters.” The formation of that militia followed the humiliating defeat inflicted upon the Iraqi army by the International Coalition, forcing it out of Kuwait after the invasion of August 1990. It was also accompanied by US threats to overthrow the Iraqi regime. Uday assigned several tasks to the Legion including the decimation of opponents to his father`s regime; monitoring “irregular social phenomena” such as sex workers and homosexuals who were publicly beheaded outside their houses to boost the “piety campaign” launched by the regime, confirming its ideological bankruptcy. This was akin to a coup by then vice president Izzat al-Douri who was, and still is, obsessed with Naqshbandi Sufi sermons.
Amid the battle to appropriate the Palestinian cause involving different Arab and regional countries including Iraq, al-Quds Army was founded in 2001. This appeared to be a late response to the establishment of Quds Liberation Army in Iran whose rallying cry during the Iraq-Iran war was that the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad. Iraq`s Al-Quds army did nothing but suppress citizens and impose surveillance, turning it into yet another tool at the disposal of the security and intelligence apparatus.
Bremer: The Democracy of Militias
As soon as the US-led invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, with occupation forces advancing towards Baghdad after seizing the southern and central provinces, new, anti-regime militias emerged on the scene. The Badr Corp which entered Iraq through the Iranian borders, was established in Iran in 1982 as the military wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, Badr Corp was led by Hadi al-Amiri, the Transportation Minister in the Maliki government. The core of the militias consisted of anti-Saddam Iraqis in Iran, in addition to former prisoners from the Iraqi Army and the Popular Army, dubbed “The Repentant” (al-Tawabon).
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmerga militia was active in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diala outside their territorial control in Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniyah. Thus, they imposed early on a new reality on the ground by seizing light and heavy ammunition left over by the Iraqi army after surrendering to US led occupation forces.
Another paramilitary force was the al-Mahdi Army, the military wing of al-Sadr`s Movement. Established somewhat spontaneously before the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sader in 1999, it was expanded due to the "popular Shi`i anger" that succeeded following the assassination.
Al-Sadr Movement became the most influential force in the Iraqi streets following the occupation as it attracted impoverished Shi‘i youth and took advantage of the vacuum left behind after the decision to dissolve the Iraqi army and security services directly after the occupation. Armed militias gained legitimacy from the presence of occupation forces on the ground. Led by young religious cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Mahdi Army grew bigger towards the end of 2003 when it mainly relied on "soft power" and operated as popular committees that strove to isolate Shi‘i communities from the US occupation forces in Baghdad. The escalating abuses and arrests by American soldiers in Iraq, however, led Muqtada al-Sadr to explicitly urge militants to fight foreign troops.
Sunni militias in Anbar and Nineveh were established too, raising the slogan of fighting the occupiers and expelling them from Iraq, thus circumventing Decree Number 91 issued by Paul Bremer that orders the disbanding of all armed militias belonging to parties. The “political process,” laid forth by the US occupation on the basis of sectarian power sharing, resulted into a full-fledged civil war in a bid to redistribute the spoils after sectarian tensions had reached their peak.
One Militia Producing Another
Starting in 2006, militias were engaged in internal fighting in order to assert control over residential areas. Al-Mahdi Army regularly clashed with the Supreme Islamic Council in al-Sadr City in 2006 and 2007 and elements within the Mahdi Army declared insurrection against the leadership as manifested in the defection of the League of the Righteous in addition to the defection of small groups that committed looting and kidnapping for large ransoms under the cover of the sectarian war. Additionally, Sunni and Shi’i militias were formed with the backing and funding of regional actors seeking to increase their influence in a drained Iraq.
Only one day after the appointment of Haidar al-Abbadi to succeed Nouri al-Maliki in forming a new government, a militia emerged in the streets of Baghdad calling itself “the Soldiers of the Imam.” Armed to the teeth, members of this militia paraded in state-owned cars after removing the official plates and protected pro-Maliki demonstrators who took to the streets to express support for Maliki and his “constitutional rights.”
It was commonly believed that the League of the Righteous, the militia Maliki has helped defend, empowered and funded since 2009, would be the first force to back him. However, it abandoned him only one day after the appointment of al-Abbadi, which forced Maliki to seek the help of Soldiers of the Imam, a previously unknown militia. As things stood, though, Maliki`s party al-Da`wa had a “movement” with a similar name during the 1960s which Maliki had to revive in the face of his bleak prospects. Most militias also operate media outlets that cover their military and “social” activities. The loose security in Iraq contributed to the emergence of new militias that began to gain increasing prominence following the fall of Mosul at the hands of ISIL on 10 June 2014.
This sparked the apprehension of the Supreme Shi‘i Council in Najaf despite the fact that it has already issued a fatwa (decree) declaring “sufficient jihad” (al-jihad al-kifa’i). The fatwa was issued in an attempt at “regulating” and organizing armed groups under the mandate of the Supreme Council. The latter wanted to avoid turning from a defender striving to kick out ISIL from Iraq into a party in a civil war that looms increasingly larger amid the ongoing sectarian attacks in several cities and provinces.
The Supreme Shi‘i Council reiterated, through three communiqués, the duty to fight with the Iraqi army exclusively and that fighters should follow the orders of army commanders, but such thing is an utter illusion. The Shi‘i public has mostly paid no heed to the Council`s calls for electing new faces during the Friday sermons that preceded the parliamentary elections in April. Parties, too, failed to meet the call for breathing new life into the government. If we add to this the splinters among religious schools and their disagreements over several social and political issues, it becomes clear that fighters will only follow the orders of their leaders.
Furthermore, militias can only be regarded as parasites that benefit from the crises. They cannot sustain themselves except through manufacturing sectarian fear mongering and cannot attract new fighters except through the new wars that they wage. The egregious economic situation, coupled with the rise of unemployment rate among youth, plays a significant role in the increase of those who enlist in the militias and in the expansion of their scope of activity both in Shi‘i and Sunni areas. This is particularly due to the fact that these militias receive international, regional, and local funding.
The successive Iraqi governments have not created any investment opportunities for local and international corporations outside oil nor did they legislate adequate labor laws. They have also used public sector employment as a means to win votes during elections which has drained the annual budgets.
Taking into account the high population growth in Iraq (estimated at 3.1 percent), Iraq will remain a fertile ground for militias in the near future if al-Abbadi government follows in the footsteps of previous governments. This in turn, will lead skilled Iraqis, especially the youth, to leave the country making Iraq a state officially ruled by militias. Currently, none of the dominant Iraqi parties are making an effort to build a state that respects the constitution and takes security into its own hands. All parties prefer to deploy militias, rather than official troops, to maintain security in conflict zones because militias extend the influence of parties in the society. Parties expand the scope of activity for militias because the latter constitute a guarantee for them to remain in power and a tool to intimidate those willing to oppose them, not to mention the fact that allegations of corruption are mounting up against political parties.
Behind all of this rages a cold—or hot—war economy of ascendancy and gains, both entangled. There is also concern for the loss of power, or a military coup by army officers, either because they are marginalized or because of different allegiances believed to be in existence still. Due to the timidity of the governmental reforms to integrate militias in the state, it appears as if the current situation threatens to last for many years to come.
[This article orginally appeared in Arabic on Assafir al-Arabi.]