Iraq: Shi’a Militias – Partners or Contestants of Iraqi Stability

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


The fall of Mosul in June 2014 came as a result of series of mistakes committed by the then Iraqi government and Prime-Minister al Maliki. Despite the significant efforts by the international community and the substantial financial resources, dedicated to the strengthening and vocational training of the Iraqi security forces in order to confront both internal and external challenges, the outcome appeared to be rather grim. Notwithstanding the numerous warning signals, the newly established military and security apparatus of Iraq has been plagued with corruption. As a result, it became an arena for irregularities, which by the time of the ISIS invasion, resulted in a complete undermining the Armed forces capacity to confront the threat, as well as the other Iraqi Sunni militant groups. Professionally and ideologically weak, the Iraqi army and security entities were incapable to forecast and thus to plan a strategy on how to approach the terrorist threat.

Sources inside the Iraqi political establishment admitted their shock at these developments, which coincided with the evaporation of the Mosul (and further south) bound Army regiments. The advancement of ISIS and its tactical allies developed with frightening promptness, reaching the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, a.k.a. the Baghdad belt. This was a turning point. As a result of the swiftly developing political dynamics aiming to urgently save Iraq, a fatwa was issued by the Supreme religious authority in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The fatwa called upon the Iraqi nation to stand alongside the Iraqi army and defend the country. Although the fatwa did not have a discriminatory character, i.e. it did not draw sectarian lines, it was wrongfully interpreted and decisively refuted by the Iraqi Sunni component. The fatwa and the following decree by the new PM Haider al Abbadi, on the establishment of the Popular Mobilization Forces, however served as a perfect pretext for the reemergence of the Shi’a paramilitary forces, a.k.a. the Militias. The biggest among them – the Badr corpus (the former military wing of the SCIRI) managed to swiftly mobilize and deploy hundreds of its members at key blockposts around Baghdad, with the logistical and military support of Iran, at a rate which allowed it to commence a counter-attack in certain areas. Soon, other groups like Asa’ib al Ahl al Haq (ex Sadrists) and Kata’ib Hizbullah followed, thus occupying locations both inside and outside of Baghdad.

With the support of Iran and, at a later stage, of the US-led International anti-ISIS coalition, Iraqi Forces and PMF soon repelled the terrorist attacks in various places around the capital and areas in the North and North-East of the country. This propagated the hope that Iraq would assert its sovereign status to function and defend itself against an enemy. Within a period of over a year, a large portion of previously occupied territories were regained and returned to the Central Government. While Baghdad managed to claim administrative control, at least officially, throughout many places like the Diyala Province, security/military control remained in the hands of Militias.

The campaign for Ramadi revealed serious differences between various power circles in Baghdad. Despite the expectation that the PMF would play a decisive role in the operation against ISIS, the Military command and the PM’s Office decision was to keep their regiments away from the battlefield. That was ill perceived by the high command and led to a serious shift within the balance of coordination between PM Abbadi and Militia forces. Furthermore, the Government began to lose support from the Supreme religious authorities in Najaf and is now facing another challenge – regaining the trust of the Iraqi population by implementing reforms and adopting strict anti-corruption measures. Recently, the PM announced intentions to shuffle ministerial personnel, among them the personal appointee of the Badr Organization – the Minister of Interior Muhammad al Ghabban. This presents an open challenge to the Militias and their clout over Iraqi political environment. Yet to succeed, Abbadi has to convince the Parliament to accept his proposal. As Abbadi is lacking the support of Najaf, this task looks even more difficult. It is already anticipated that the majority of the parties within the largest Shi’a Coalition – the National Alliance, will reject the reappointments. With Iran allegedly supporting the main Abbadi rival – al Maliki, it is quite difficult to foresee which side of the fence the Militias will come down on. Purportedly, al Maliki remains to be the Iranian supported candidate enjoying the strong support from Tehran, while the Militias are highly unlikely to stand against Iranian support as they are quite dependent on its logistical assistance. It is therefore probable that their main question has become whether to choose the national interests over their own.

Image: Left, Nouri al-Maliki meets with George W. Bush, 13 June 2006, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right, Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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