A Rogue by Any Other Name: How Not to Tame Iraq’s Controversial Militias

By Mustafa Habib, Baghdad


Iraq’s PM has a new plan to reign in the country’s controversial militias. But it may well be doomed to fail, along with other ideas – such as integrating the fighters into the regular army.  

Last week Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, introduced a new resolution that will attempt to bring the country’s troublesome Shiite Muslim militias under increased government control.

The militias – which started off as groups of volunteers to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State – have become increasingly powerful in Iraq and there are well-founded fears that they now form a kind of parallel military.

Abdul-Mahdi’s new plan calls for the closure of militia headquarters in and outside of Iraqi cities, and for militias to give up any religious connotations, including their brigade names and associations with certain religious personalities; these are mostly Shiite Muslim. The militias should then number their brigades in the same way the Iraqi army does – as in, fourth battalion or fifth brigade and so on. Additionally the militias need to work under an overall commander, who should be chosen by the prime minister himself, according to Iraqi law.

Most of the militias welcomed the decision with only the so-called “loyal” or “resistance” group opposed. This is because this group usually professes loyalty to Iran rather than Iraq, celebrating Iran for having supported them, both logistically and spiritually. They often use pictures of senior Iranian religious authorities and have strong cross-border connections.

While the plan might sound sensible, its critics say it is really just paying lip service to Iraq’s difficult foreign policy. The US government recently said that a drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil pipelines was launched out of Iraqi territory, not from out of Yemen as originally thought. This puts Iraq’s difficult balancing act – trying to appease neighbouring Iran and their much-needed ally, the US – at risk. By trying to control the militias, seen to do Iran’s dirty work in Iraq, Abdul-Mahdi is trying to prove his government’s goodwill and neutrality, and all without making the same mistakes his predecessor did.

Abdul-Mahdi is not the first Iraqi prime minister to attempt to bring the former volunteer militias under government control. In early 2016, Iraq’s former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, ordered that an ex-commander of the Iraqi federal police, Mohsen al-Kaabi, replace the current head of the militias, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, also the leader of Hezbollah in Iraq. But the “resistance” subset of the volunteer militias loyal to Iran rejected the appointment. A statement they issued pointed out that, “the Islamic resistance factions and the popular crowd are ideological jihadist factions that have their own administrative and organizational structures, different than classical structures adopted in the military establishment”.

The militias argued that they worked and fought in a different way to the regular army and had different leadership structures. There is certainly some truth to this. “Army officers train for three years in the military academy,” one senior army officer told Al Menassa; he wished to remain anonymous as he was not authorised to speak on the topic. “I don’t know what will happen once the militia members are with us. Will they salute their senior officers? The militias fighters are respected and popular among the rank and file too – so who will direct the orders and launch the missions?  Despite many years in the army, I have no idea how this is going to work,” he added.

When the Shiite Muslim militias were formed, they were mostly created by volunteers who responded to a call from Iraq’s highest religious authority, Ali al-Sistani. But many of them were illiterate and had never been to school, some were too young to join the regular army and had no weapon-handling skills.

But probably the greatest problem with potential integration is that the militias are far from a homogenous force, where rules can be universally applied. There are deep disagreements among them and their end goals are very varied. That’s even before one considers the different levels of funding and outfitting, religious or political allegiances and ideologies and internal regulations.

For example, the pro-Iranian militias want to remain as independent as possible from the Iraqi government. They would also like to change the Iraqi political system in their favour and hold strong views on issues like the independence of the Iraqi Kurdish living up north and the popular anti-government demonstrations that erupt almost every summer without fail in the Shiite Muslim-majority areas south of Baghdad.

The more neutral militias – those affiliated with the Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and religious authority al-Sistani – do not similar have political ambitions and support the Shiite Muslim demonstrators who demand better state services and an end to political corruption.

International calls to integrate the militias speedily are verging on illogical. For example, how does a fighter from al-Sadr-affiliated militias work alongside somebody from the more extreme Iran-affiliated militias, like the League of the Righteous militia? These two groups strongly disagree with one another and have actually clashed violently in the recent past.

In fact, possibly the most influential move ever made by the Iraqi government with regard to the militias was deciding to pay them out of the federal budget. Over the next few years, if the Iraqi government can continue to oversee a more stable nation with decent oil incomes feeding into the federal budget, this may well do more to reign in the militia fighters than anything else – including name changes.



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