Fracturing of the State
Recent Historical Events Contributing to the Proliferation of Local, Hybrid, and Sub-State Forces
Source: Sadik Gulec /Shutterstock.com
Although Iraq now appears awash in pro-government militias, the majority of the sub-state or non-state groups that exist today are a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s strong security apparatus dominated the security landscape. Except for a few notable exceptions, like the military wing of the Badr Organization or the Peshmerga, most of the active local, hybrid, and sub-state forces (which we refer to as LHSFs emerged either after, or in response to: i) the US invasion in 2003; ii) growing sectarian behavior by the Iraqi government and rising violence in response; and iii) the emergence of ISIL and its takeover of major Iraqi territories in 2014.
This brief provides an overview of how these three recent events have driven the proliferation of LHSFs in Iraq. It is not intended as a stand-alone document, but as a supporting reference material, providing some historical context to the field research and analysis shared in a study on the role and impact of LHSFs in Iraq. A separate, complementary background document summarizes the key facts and attributes of LHSF groups active in post-2014 operations.
2003 Invasion and its Aftermath
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had profound effects on the country’s security landscape, reshaping the basic distribution and structure of force in ways that still dominate the landscape today. The decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army and the purging of Baathists from the post-2003 regime effectively dismantled the strong, state-centered security apparatus. Under Saddam, the Iraqi Army numbered roughly 385,000 in the army, 285,000 in the police, and 50,000 in presidential security units – one of the strongest state security sectors in the region.1 On May 23, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued CPA Order Number 2, dissolving the Iraqi security forces and effectively un-employing and antagonizing hundreds of thousands of armed men. This act created a vacuum of security control across Iraq. The decision, followed by a predictable failure to quickly create a comparable and competent new security architecture, launched Iraq into one of the most violent and destructive periods of prolonged conflict in its history, resulting in close to 200,000 civilian deaths between March 2003 and March 2017.2
The predominant exception to this breakdown was Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurdish forces have been responsible for their own security since 1991. The Peshmerga, the regional guard forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, and other Kurdish Security Forces, notably the Asayish, a police-type force, remained intact throughout this period and in control of their territory despite the violence brewing south of their border.
While a full discussion of the insecurity and insurgency in post-2003 Baghdad-controlled Iraq is beyond the scope of this paper (and is well detailed elsewhere), it is important to recognize that the collapse of Iraq’s security infrastructure and the insurgency against the US spawned many of the militia groups and local and sub-state forces engaged in the conflict today. Many ISIL forces are drawn from the (largely Sunni) insurgent groups that rose up against US forces in the 2003 to 2007 period, notably the Islamic State of Iraq, which formed in 2006. ISIL forces are also significantly guided and enhanced by disaffected, former senior members of the Baathist military and intelligence services. On the anti-ISIL side, many of the Shi’a militias now fighting with the Iraqi government emerged during this period due to the changed political environment, which favored Shi’a political parties, or as direct opponents of the US occupying force.
In particular, many of the most prominent and significant Shi’a forces that now operate under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), many of which are linked to Iran, began to emerge in the post-2003 period.3 Following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Shi’a Islamic political parties that had previously operated in exile returned, bringing with them militias. The most notable of these armed groups is the Badr Brigades, which returned from exile in Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein and formed their own political party, called the Badr Organization (Badr).4 Today, the military wing of Badr is the largest and perhaps most prominent PMF unit active in Iraq, with approximately 20,000 members. Badr has nurtured deep ties with post-2003 Iraq governments, particularly with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s. Its leader, Hadi al-Ameri, who provides significant leadership to the current PMF, was Minister of Transportation (2010−2014); he also commands the Iraqi Army and police in Diyala, an eastern governorate bordering Iran.5 A junior Badr member, Muhammad al-Ghabban, was Minister of the Interior from 2014 to 2016. Ghabban resigned following a large bombing in Baghdad in June 2016. However, even though Badr has only 22 of 440 seats in the Iraqi Parliament, another Badr member has led the ministry since January 2017.
The presence of foreign troops in Iraq also prompted the formation of new Shi’a militias. Muqtada al-Sadr created the Mahdi Army (jaysh al-mahdi) in response to the US decision to shut down the main Sadrist newspaper in 2004 and the arrest of a prominent figure in the Sadrist movement.6 The Mahdi Army was the strongest Shi’a insurgent group in Iraq in the 2000s until Muqtada al-Sadr froze its military operations in 2008, which allowed him to participate in the electoral process. However, this group’s special forces unit, the League of the Righteous (asa’ib ahl al-haqq), led by Qais al-Khazali, splintered from the Mahdi Army in 2006 and continued attacks against US-led Coalition forces until their withdrawal. As a result, members of the League of the Righteous, which is formally part of the PMF umbrella and thus an official state force, are designated global terrorists by the US.7 The League of the Righteous is, alongside Badr, one of the top three Shi’a PMF groups today, with approximately 5,000−10,000 members;8 Khazali’s group differentiates itself as a dreaded Special Forces unit, which rarely holds territory. In 2014, Sadr resuscitated the former Mahdi Army as the Peace Brigades (saraya al-salam), which were instrumental in securing the holy shrines in Samarra after ISIL’s onslaught in 2014. The Peace Brigades are now also part of the PMF, but unlike the other Shi’a groups discussed here, they reject the PMF’s formal command structure and wilayat al-faqih, the Iranian interpretation of political Islam; the Peace Brigades have approximately 14,000 fighters today.
Another important Shi’a militia that formed around this time is the Hezbollah Brigades (kata’ib hezbollah). It is the only PMF group designated as a terrorist by the US, and its leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who currently oversees overall PMF operations in Iraq, is a designated global terrorist.9 Similar to Badr and the League of the Righteous, the Hezbollah Brigades have received significant support from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and their approximately 20,000 fighters10 swear an oath of loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.11
A group that emerged during the period of American occupation but is significantly absent from the current conflict is comprised of the largely Sunni tribal forces who made up the “Sons of Iraq,” also known as the sahwa, or “Awakening” (there are some overlaps between sahwa forces and the tribal forces mobilized under the PMF, as discussed below). In 2006, as the insurgency against the US and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) was reaching its height, predominantly Sunni, but also some Shi’a, tribal leaders became disenchanted with the more radical, foreign elements leading the insurgency. Their discontent coincided with a shift in US strategy toward a counter-insurgency approach that emphasized population protection and a more ground-based, bottom-up approach to defeating insurgent groups. Sunni tribal and religious leaders reached out to the US, asking for their support in policing their neighborhoods. With US funding and support, by mid-2007, these Awakening councils had organized into a full-fledged, Sunni tribal revolt of over 30 tribes, some 95,000 forces, against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
As the success of sahwa councils became apparent, the government of Iraq committed to incorporating them into state forces. Yet, Iraqi officials remained suspicious of these fighters – many of whom were former insurgents – and had integrated only two-thirds of sahwa members into the state apparatus when the US withdrew troops in December 2011. Of the fighters who were integrated, many were given only temporary positions or public jobs outside the security forces, which were seen as demeaning. The government of Iraq stopped paying salaries and marginalized sahwa leaders from 2012 onwards. Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2013, a targeted assassination campaign by ISIL against former members of the Awakening killed at least 1,345 members, according to some estimates.12
Although Sunni tribal forces have mobilized in response to the ISIL threat, they were slow to do so, and still have not joined to the same level as during the initial sahwa development. This is largely due to their bitter experience with the Iraqi government’s failed promises and fears of ISIL reprisals.
Sectarianism in Iraqi Government Fuels New Instability
A second major factor underlying the current, fractured security landscape and its numerous armed groups came in response to the new Iraqi state’s increasingly sectarian behavior, which was driven by an emphasis on de-Baathification and the infiltration of Shi’a militia elements into state institutions.
Sectarian behavior has been particularly prominent in Iraq’s security services. Following early reforms in 2003, Sunnis boycotted the Iraqi army; as a result, today’s army is dominated by Shi’a Arabs, although it is generally considered less sectarian than the police.13 According to US estimates as of 2016, the Iraqi army has only five functioning army divisions (out of the nominal 14). Of these, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division allegedly reports to the head of Badr instead of the Ministry of Defense.14 People associated with Badr led Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, which commands the police and intelligence, from 2005 to 2006 and from 2014 to the present. In particular, there are reports that Badr forces are so thoroughly integrated into the Federal According to a security officer in the ministry, an estimated 70 percent of ministerial staff are loyal to Shi’a armed groups – in particular, Badr.15 Police, that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Fighters go in between the organizations as through a revolving door; they often conduct joint operations together; and there are reports that the Federal Police even allowed Shi’a militias access to detention facilities under their control.
Already in Maliki’s first term, there were reports of Iraqi security forces under thecontrol of sectarian-minded Shi’a leaders treating Sunni populations harshly. For example between 2005 and 2006 local Shi’a security officers in Tal Afar were alleged to have committed a number of abuses against the local Sunni population, including torture, extra-judicial killings, and sectarian-motivated property destruction.16 Such treatment – not only in Tal Afar but across Sunni areas – sparked sectarian tensions and violence, and contributed to the emergence of strong Al-Qaeda factions.17 From 2006 to 2007, the US-led counter-insurgency campaign, in partnership with the Sunni Awakening groups, decimated the Al-Qaeda leadership and tamped down radical Islamist violence. However, the roots of this violence – the sectarian behavior of the Iraqi government and forces – was only just beginning.
This heavy-handed treatment only worsened in Maliki’s second term, as US influence waned with the withdrawal of US troops and Iranian influence increased.18 With this new ally behind his back, al-Maliki felt he had carte blanche to extend his power and settle scores.19 Maliki relied on anti-Baathist laws to target political rivals, and swept anti-corruption officials and checks on his power out of the way. On the security front, he doubled down in appointing sectarian-minded officials in key local security positions. Many of them had strong affiliations with Shi’a militias, and the forces under them blended official and unofficial Shi’a forces. In Sunni strongholds like Tikrit and Mosul, security forces, sometimes in partnership with Shi’a militias, allegedly engaged in hundreds of extrajudicial killings against predominantly Sunni residents, the torture of Sunni detainees, and other abuses.20 In the words of lawyer and analyst Zaid al-Ali:
“Groups of young men were arrested in waves, often in the middle of the night, and would be whisked to secret jails, often never to be seen again. Former Army officers, members of the Awakening, activists who complained too much about corruption, devout Iraqis who prayed a little too often at their local mosques — all were targeted. Many were never charged with crimes or brought before a judge. Under the pretext of trying to stop the regular explosions that blighted Baghdad, these individuals were subjected to severe abuse.”21
Such behavior fueled the re-emergence of radical Islamist Sunni movements, and laid the foundation for the political and security environment that enable ISIL’s takeover. Anti-government protests and sit-ins became a common phenomenon in Iraq.22 For the first time since the Sunni Awakening, the number of security incidents, such as vehicle-bound IEDs, increased dramatically from 2012. ISIL also attacked prisons in central Iraq where Sunnis were disproportionately held on terrorism charges.
Significantly for this study, Maliki’s reign also enabled further the growth of Shi’a militias. Groups that had existed before, but as shadowy, illegal armed groups, could now more brazenly carry out their sectarian agendas. In addition, rather than relying solely on the ISF, which were considered weak and ineffective, al-Maliki decided to expand Shi’a militia operations within Iraq to respond to the upsurge in violence. Shi’a militias, often acting at the government’s behest, committed gross human rights abuses, including attacking peaceful protestors.23 These abuses resulted in a mutually reinforcing spiral of violence.
The Fight Against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant
While the political situation in Iraq escalated, across the border, Syria was engulfed in a civil war touched off by the Arab Spring protests. The Sunni grievances spawned by al-Maliki’s sectarian policies and the security vacuum on both sides of the porous Iraq-Syria border created both the spark and the breathing space for what remained of theIslamic State of Iraq to be reborn as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
This force was significantly more brutal and territorially aggressive than its previous iteration, and the Iraqi army suffered one humiliating defeat after another as it was forced to retreat from ISIL: a smaller but more organized and determined force. By early January 2014, ISIL had taken control of the Sunni Arab cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Then, in the space of a week (between June 9 and June 16, 2014), ISIL took large swaths of territory in Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk, as Iraqi forces abandoned their posts and fled. On June 10, after a pitched battle, ISIL assumed control of Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, and began moving west toward strategic areas on the Syrian and Kurdish borders, in Tal Afar district. ISIL fighters simultaneously began moving east and in days expanded their control to Tikrit, the capital of Salah ad-Din governorate, as well as much of the governorate on the road to Baghdad and into Hawija and surrounding areas in Kirkuk. On June 12, ISIL executed several hundred Shi’a recruits of the Iraqi army who were stationed at Camp Speicher, just north of Tikrit, and distributed a propaganda video publicizing what came to be known as the “Camp Speicher massacre.”24 The incident enraged the Shi’a community and became a rallying event for Shi’a forces.25
Timeline of ISIL-Captured Territories
January 2-4, 2014 – ISIL seizes Fallujah, parts of Ramadi26
June 8-10, 2014 – ISIL captures Mosul; Iraqi control ofNorthern Iraq collapses27
June 10-11, 2014 – ISIL takes over Baiji, and Tikrit in Salah ad-Din;28 Hawija up to Taza Khurmatu in Kirkuk.29
June 11-12, 2014 – ISIL takes over much of Tuz in Salah ad-Din,30 Rabi’a, and some areas north of Mosul
June 15-16, 2014 – Tal Afar falls to ISIL after heated battle31
August 2-3, 2014 – Sinjar, Zummar, and the Mosul Dam fall to ISIL32
August 6, 2014 – ISIL captures southern Ninewa Plains, resulting in nearly full control of Ninewa33
Makeshift bomb factory in Qaraqosh
ISIL’s takeover of Mosul, its presence within striking distance of Baghdad, and its increasing proximity to the Kurdish line of control ignited mobilization on both the part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraq government. This would result in the creation of many of the LHSFs that are the focus of this study. On theBaghdad side, in response to the fall of Mosul, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa that was a popular call to arms against ISIL, aimed at strengthening the ranks ofthe ISF. However, the call prompted a mass mobilization effort that would be organized under the umbrella banner of the PMF, putting a plethora of newly formed as well as remobilized sub-state armed groups on the Iraqi payroll.34 The core of these forces drew from the many prominent Shi’a militias already discussed – including the Badr Brigades, Hezbollah Brigades, League of the Righteous, and the Peace Brigades. Now given an official status and role, these Shi’a militias were able to recruit more members or at least make public their vast, existing networks. They grew in number as the fight against ISIL continued and recruited local affiliates in many of the liberated areas.
In addition to these more well-established Shi’a militias, the mobilization effort led to the creation of over 40 new volunteer forces. In 2016, the Iraqi parliament approved a $2bn budget for the PMF – double what was spent in 2015 – and included planned salaries for 120,000 members that year, although the actual frontline fighting forces may total half that figure.35 By comparison, the ISF have about 150,000 fighters, and thePeshmerga number about 108,000 front-line soldiers (but estimates of their total forces vary, reaching more than 200,000).36 By 2016, nearly of all these fighters would be put on Iraqi government salaries and report to the prime minister’s office. As of November 2016, the PMF were officially legalized by Parliament. They were formally incorporated into the security apparatus,37 reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.38
The fall of Mosul, the Camp Speicher massacre, and Sistani’s fatwa not only led to mass mobilization; these events also galvanized immediate action to stop ISIL’s advance. Thefirst to advance for the more prominent, better organized, and long-standing Shi’a militias, many of whom were linked to or under direction from Iran. As ISIL closed in on Samarra,39 threatening to destroy sacred Shi’a shrines in the area, Shi’a PMF forces rushed to the city’s defense, and were able to hold off ISIL.40 At the same time, as ISIL surrounded the nearby Shi’a Turkmen city of Amerli in Tuz district, Shi’a PMF helicoptered in elite forces to save the city from humanitarian disaster.41
On the Kurdish side, attacks on multiple Disputed Territories where Kurdish populations lived triggered an early KSF response. Joint regional brigades and forces loyal to one of the two main Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) engaged ISIL in different areas along the KRG border. ISIL expansion in Diyala governorate (e.g., Jalawla and Saadiya) was countered by PUK forces in August 2014.42 In Ninewa governorate, KDP-commanded Peshmerga responded to the initial ISIL threat and the fall of Mosul by forming a defensive line across the Ninewa Plains, from Sinjar in the West (which they had already effectively controlled) to Hamdaniya in the southern Ninewa plains.43 Although they promised to defend the area, on August 6 the Peshmerga announced that they were unable to hold the line and withdrew from large parts of territory.44 What followed has been described as the genocide of Iraq’s minority communities,45 as Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kakai and other minority communities were subject to torture, public executions, crucifixions, kidnapping, and sexual slavery.46 These minority communities’ responses to the existential threat by ISIL and to their abandonment, first by Iraqi forces and then by Kurdish, has shaped the development and allegiances of many of theminority LHSF groups that exist today.
Although the PKK is known for its armed struggle against the Turkish state, it also played a significant role in the fight against ISIL in Syria via its local affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG have been widely lauded for saving thousands ofYazidis in Sinjar, Iraq, by opening an escape corridor in August 2014 to Rojava, Syria. ThePKK’s and its affiliates’ successes in Iraq and Syria have created a new center of gravity for LHSFs that do not sympathize with the KRG’s Peshmerga or Baghdad, especially in areas where the Kurdish Peshmerga fell back from during ISIL’s advance. For example, the most active Yazidi self-defense force, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), is trained and supported by the PKK and the YPG (but other Yazidi factions have allied with thePMF or the Kurdish Security Forces).
International Actors’ Support
On June 25, 2014, Iraq invoked United Nations Charter Article 51 and turned to the UN to request international support to fight ISIL – initially to little effect.47 Except for Iran and Turkey, international action was slow to materialize. However, though slow to begin, international support but would ultimately play a significant role in the overall fight against ISIL and in the mobilization and development of the different LHSF forces ofgreatest concern to this study.
The fall of Mosul, the takeover of Shi’a areas and massacres of Shi’a populations (including the Camp Speicher massacre), and threats to the Shi’a shrines around Samarra provoked an immediate and significant response from Iran. As noted, Iran had long been a backer of the most prominent Shi’a PMF forces, who would be critical in theearly fighting against ISIL. As these Shi’a PMF forces deployed to the ISIL frontlines in June 2014, Iranian forces and leadership were also directly engaged. The engagement was so significant and hands-on that Qassem Suleimani – commander of the Iranian Quds Force, the external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – was present at thefirst major PMF victories over ISIL in Amerli (Salah ad-Din governorate) in September 2014 and Jurf al-Sahkr (Babel governorate) in October 2014; he was also present in operations in and around Tikrit (Salah ad-Din governorate) between March and April 2015.48 Iranian and Lebanese forces led the training of PMF forces in several military camps, including in Taza base (south of Kirkuk).
With the official recognition of the PMF and corresponding Iraqi state budget subsidies, the demand for Iranian salary support for Shi’a PMF forces has decreased. However, Iran continues to provide training and guidance to these militias via military advisors (in therange of hundreds), and there are some reports of direct salary support for some groups via Iran’s Quds Force.49
Following the fall of Mosul, the assault on Iraq’s minorities in the Ninewa Plains described above spurred greater Western support and intervention. US coalition airstrikes on ISIL strongholds in the north of Iraq began as early August 2014, after President Obama issued a statement committing the US to preventing a genocide ofIraq’s minorities.50 US military engagement against ISIL continued into mid-2015 in Tikrit; however, these airstrikes came with added conditions.51 In March 2015, PMF forces withdrew from operations in Tikrit in response to the US military’s refusal to carry out airstrikes on ISIL positions as long as these forces remained engaged.52 In August 2015, US airstrikes in the al-Ba’aj district of Ninewa fatally wounded ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although airstrikes by the US have been the most prominent, they have been far from alone. By August 2016, the foreign countries conducting air strikes in Iraq also included Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.53
An important facet of international engagement has been the level of support to local actors, including many of the LHSFs of interest to this study. Regional actors in addition to Iran have supported local fighters who would later be incorporated into the PMF. Most prominently, Turkish forces directly contributed to training the 3,000-strong force under former Ninewa Governor Ateel al-Nujaifi, the Ninewa Guards Force, which formally became part of the PMF in 2016. They also reportedly provided weaponry and salaries, although Turkey and al-Nujaifi deny this level of support. Some Gulf countries have also reportedly provided minor levels of support to local fighters, although no concrete substantiation of these reports surfaced in the local research.
The US, together with the Iraqi government, initiated a new training program for Sunni tribal fighters, dubbed the Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF). Somewhat similar to theSunni Awakening, the program was designed to support Sunni tribal leaders interested in taking part in the resistance against ISIL. Although formally funded through Baghdad salaries and later integrated fully into the PMF, US-supported tribal fighters (locally dubbed the tribal hashd or hashd al-asha’ir) received Coalition training and support, which was not provided to all other PMF fighters.54
Part of the rationale for trying to expand Sunni participation was a need for manpower to help hold cities that were taken, and using Shi’a PMF in this role had proven controversial. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented mass human rights abuses by Shi’a PMF participating in operations to retake Tikrit.55 and Falluja,56 including summary executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, looting, and mass property destruction. The most serious allegations have involved the League of theRighteous and the Hezbollah Brigades, and local forces affiliated with them, but allegations have also included the Badr Organization, and others. Even where abuses are not alleged, given past sectarian conflict, having Shi’a militias in control of Sunni-dominant cities has provoked political backlash.
The US and other European countries have also provided significant arms and support to Peshmerga forces. Much of the Peshmerga training has been organized through theKurdistan Training Coordination Center (KTCC), a joint training mission that has trained 18,000 Peshmerga and Kurdish-controlled forces since 2014. As of mid-2017, theKTCC was under a rotating Italian and German command and staffed by military trainers from Italy, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Canada, Hungary, and Slovenia.57 The training is supposed to be provided only to unified brigades under the Ministry of Peshmerga to avoid becoming enmeshed in rivalries between forces allied with the KDP or PUK. However, the Ministry of Peshmerga selects which forces receive training, and it is ultimately difficult for the member states working through the KTCC to verify or limit the fighters sent to them for training. The US is thepredominant provider of the weapons and equipment used in the training, and so all units must go through standard US vetting procedures, including checks for terrorist affiliations and credible allegations of gross human rights violations against the unit (not individuals).58 Germany has also provided weapons and other equipment to Peshmerga forces.59
All Coalition forces provide training and capacity support for the Iraqi security services and the Peshmerga via the US-led Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) under Operation Inherent Resolve in six training locations, five of which focus on building the capacities of the ISF.
As this brief review of recent historical events has illustrated, militias, regional and sub-state security forces have been a common feature of Iraq since at least the US invasion in 2003. These forces have increasingly grown in strength and number, pushed to the fore by political dynamics and (often) deteriorating security conditions. Most notably, in thecourse of a single decade Shi’a militias morphed from illegal or only tacitly approved pro-government militias to the standard-bearers of the fight against ISIL, at least in the eyes of Iraq’s Shi’a majority. The Peshmerga has similarly solidified its position as protector ofKurdish interests, and has risen to become something much closer to a state force.
The role played by different LHSFs is inextricably intermeshed with political dynamics between key stakeholders, and with the future stability of the Iraqi state. While it was necessary to mobilize LHSFs to stop ISIL’s advance and protect the Iraqi state from collapse, the proliferation of these groups undermines the overall coherence of the Iraqi state’s authority. They weaken Iraqi state sovereignty and its ability to control violence. In the long term these LHSFs may generate more security and political issues than they have resolved.
As such, the current dynamics surrounding LHSFs are critical. The role that these groups have carved out for themselves since 2014, and the way this has affected local and national political dynamics will have a pronounced effect on the future strength and unity of the Iraqi state. However, as the findings from the field research make clear, in each area surveyed, the events that have propelled these groups along since 2003, and community and political dynamics stretching back since well before 2003, continue to be decisive. The historical events discussed in this paper are important not only because they provide context for understanding what is happening in each of the field research areas, but also because these historical events have themselves helped determine the role and impact of LHSFs today.
1 James P. Pfiffner, “US Blunders in Iraq: De-Baathiﬁcation and Disbanding the Army,” Intelligence and National Security, 25, no. 1 (2010): 76 – 85.
2 Iraq Body Count, “Documented civilian deaths from violence,” Iraq Body Count 2003 – 2013.
3 The US military invasion in 2003 led to the emergence of these Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. Since the Iraqi government and its military were still in their nascent stages, these militias filled the security vacuum to guard mosques and meet other, smaller-scale security needs that the US would at times delegate to them. Militias such as the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army were perceived as legitimate security actors by the Iraqi population in the areas they controlled. For more information on the formation of Shi’a militias in 2003, see Dylan O’Driscoll and Dave van Zoonen, The Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraq Subnationalism and the State (Erbil: Middle East Research Institute, 2017), 14 – 15.
4 The Badr Brigades had their roots in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s but largely lived in exile for two decades, apart from sporadic engagements against Iraqi forces, as in thebombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in 1981 or the brief 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein following the first Gulf War.
5 Eli Lake, “Iran’s Militias are Taking Over Iraq’s Army,” Bloomberg, February 4, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2015 – 02-03/exclusive-iran-s-militias-are-taking-over-iraq-s-army.
6 Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr and the son-in-law of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr (the ideological founder of the Islamic Dawa Party, which has been the party of all prime ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi). The Sadrist movement draws support from the more impoverished Shi’a districts of central and southern Iraq and boasts a nationalist agenda. It has contributed thesecond largest cohort of MPs after the Islamic Dawa Party.
7Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq,” last updated March 24, 2017, web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/143.
8 The League of the Righteous is loosely linked to the small Fadhila Party, an offshoot ofthe Sadrist movement. The group’s activities were allegedly closely overseen by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (of the Islamic Dawa Party).
9 US Department of Treasury. “Treasury Designates Individual, Entity Posing Threat to Stability in Iraq.” Press release. July 2, 2009, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg195.aspx.
10 Michael Knights, “Iraq’s Popular Demobilization,” Al-Jazeera English, February 26, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/02/iraq-popular-demobilisation-160224050939178.html.
11 Dylan O’Driscoll and Dave van Zoonen, The Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraq Subnationalism and the State (Erbil: Middle East Research Institute, 2017).
12 David Ignatius, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East and How to Stop It,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/how-isis-started-syria-iraq/412042/.
13 Shukur Khilkhal, “Iraqi Army Crippled by Flaws,” trans. Sahar Ghoussoub, al-Monitor,November 10, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/iraq-army-history-protect-internal-security-governments.html.
14 Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, “US falters in campaign to revive Iraqi army, officials say,” Reuters, June 6, 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-exclusive-idUSKCN0YP2DO.
15 Ned Parker, “Power failure in Iraq as militias outgun state,” Reuters Investigates, October 21, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/iraq-abadi/.
16 Geneva International Centre for Justice, Iraq: Tal-Afar, The Next Foreseen Bloodshed. Urgent Appeal. (Geneva: Geneva International Centre for Justice, 2016), http://www.gicj.org/un-special-procedures-appeals/iraq/478-the-situation-in-iraq-tel-afar; Stansfield, The Looming Problem of Tal Afar; Knights and Schweitzer, Shiite Militias Are Crashing the Mosul Offensive.
17 Knights and Schweitzer, Shiite Militias Are Crashing the Mosul Offensive. Tal Afar’s geography also made it a central crossing point for the influx of foreign fighters from Syria, which also contributed to the growth of al-Qaeda in the city from 2004 onward; David McCone, Wilbur Scott, and George Mastroianni, “The 3rd ACR in Tal’Afar: Challenges and Adaptations,” Of Interest, January 8, 2008, 5, ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/of-interest‑9.pdf.
18 As US began looking away from Iraq, focusing its attention on Afghanistan and other counter-terrorism fights, Iran, a long-time sponsor of anti-Baathist Shi’a militias, stepped in to fill the security and political vacuum left behind by the US. Notably, it was Tehran, and not Washington DC, that resolved the electoral crisis in 2010, making al-Maliki, of the Islamic Dawa Party, the prime minister instead of Iyad Allawi, whose secular Iraqiyya list won a majority in the general elections. Dexter Filkins, “What We Left Behind,” The New Yorker, April 28, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/28/what-we-left-behind.
19 He strategically sidelined his opponents (e.g., afforded Allawi the symbolic title of Vice Prime Minister) and seized control of the justice system, which led to the arrest of long-time rivals Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Finance Minister al-Essawi in 2011. Prime Minister Al-Maliki acted as Minister of Defense from 2010 to 2011 and Minister ofthe Interior from 2010 to 2014.
20 Ned Parker, Isabel Coles, and Raheem Salman, “Special Report: How Mosul Fell — An Iraqi General Disputes Baghdad’s Story,” Reuters, October 14, 2014, www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-gharawi-special-report-idUSKCN0I30Z820141014; Suadad al-Salhy and Tim Arango, “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul,” New York Times, June 10, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/world/middleeast/militants-in-mosul.html; Andrew Slater, “The Monster of Mosul: How a Sadistic General Helped ISIS Win,” TheDaily Beast, June 19, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-monster-of-mosul-how-a-sadistic-general-helped-isis-win; Priyanka Boghani, “In Their Own Words: Sunnis on Their Treatment in Maliki’s Iraq,” Frontline, Ocober 28, 2014, www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/in-their-own-words-sunnis-on-their-treatment-in-malikis-iraq/.
21 Zaid al-Ali, “How Maliki Ruined Iraq,” Foreignpolicy.com, June 19, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/19/how-maliki-ruined-iraq/.
22 Christopher Allbritton, “Why Iraq’s Police Are a Menace,” Time, March 20, 2006, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1175055,00.html.
23 Joel Wing, Musings on Iraq. Blog post. “Militia Mobilization Started in 2013 Due to Renewed Iraq Insurgency,” August 19, 2014, http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.de/2014/08/militia-mobilization-in-iraq-started-in.html; Ned Parker, Ahmed Rasheed, and Raheem Salman, “Sectarian strife threatens Iraq ahead of election,” Reuters, April 27, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-strife-idUSBREA3Q0FE20140427.
24 Hayder al-Khoei, “Why ´Emotional´ Battle for Tikrit Will Defeat ISIS,” CNN, March 4, 2015, accessed June 27, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/04/opinion/tikrit-battle-opinion/index.htm.
25 Human Rights Watch, Ruinous Aftermath. Militias Abuses Following Iraq’s Recaptureof Tikrit (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/09/20/ruinous-aftermath/militias-abuses-following-iraqs-recapture-tikrit; al-Khoei, “Why ´Emotional´ Battle for Tikrit.”
26 “Iraq government loses control of Fallujah,” Al-Jazeera English, January 4, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/01/iraq-government-loses-control-fallujah-20141414625597514.html. At the same time, ISIL took control of many areas ofRamadi, but not all. Sunni tribes would still control other parts of the city, one of the last Iraqi government holdouts in Anbar. Roggio, “Al Qaeda seizes partial control of 2 cities in western Iraq”
27 “Iraq government loses control of Fallujah,” Al-Jazeera English, January 4, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/01/iraq-government-loses-control-fallujah-20141414625597514.html. At the same time, ISIL took control of many areas ofRamadi, but not all. Sunni tribes would still control other parts of the city, one of the last Iraqi government holdouts in Anbar. Roggio, “Al Qaeda seizes partial control of 2 cities in western Iraq”.
28 Ibid.; “Iraq crisis: Militants ‘seize Tikrit’ after taking Mosul,” BBC, June 11, 2014, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27800319. Jessica Lewis, “The Islamic State Of Iraq and Al-Sham Captures Mosul and Advances toward Baghdad,” Institute for the Study of War, 11 June, 2014, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/islamic-state-iraq-and-al-sham-captures-mosul-and-advances-toward-baghdad. “Fears of civil war in Iraq as ISIS expands,” Al Monitor, June 11, 2014, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/06/iraq-isis-spread-fears-civil-war.html.
29 Bill Roggio and Patrick Megahan, “ISIS seizes more towns in northern and central Iraq,” Long War Journal, June 10, 2014, www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/isis_seizes_more_tow.php.
30 Jessica Lewis, “The Islamic State Of Iraq and Al-Sham Captures Mosul and Advances toward Baghdad,” Institute for the Study of War, 11 June, 2014, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/islamic-state-iraq-and-al-sham-captures-mosul-and-advances-toward-baghdad. “Fears of civil war in Iraq as ISIS expands,” Al Monitor, June 11, 2014, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/06/iraq-isis-spread-fears-civil-war.html.
31 “Iraq conflict: Militants ‘seize’ city of Tal Afar,” BBC, June 16, 2014, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27865759; Holly McKay, “In shadow of Mosul operation, residents of ISIS-occupied Hawija suffer, wait,” Fox News, January 16, 2017, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/01/16/in-shadow-mosul-operation-residents-isis-occupied-hawija-suffer-wait.html.
32 Cameron Glenn, “Timeline: Rise and Spread of the Islamic State,” The Wilson Center, July 5, 2016, accessed August 18, 2017, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-rise-and-spread-the-islamic-state.
33 “Iraq Christians flee as Islamic State takes Qaraqosh,” BBC, August 7, 2014, accessed August 18, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28686998.
34 O’Driscoll and van Zoonen, “The Hashd al-Shaabi.”
35 Michael Georgy and Stephen Kalin, “Iraq to adjust military spending, hire 10,000 new forces: minister,” Reuters, October 28, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-spending-idUSKCN0SM23520151028; Ghassan Charbel, “Iraqi PM talks Iran, IS and Saudi Arabia,” trans. Sami-Joe Abboud, al-Monitor, January 21, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2015/01/iraq-abadi-iran-relations-islamic-state.html.
36 Dr. Michael Knights, The Future of Iraq’s Armed Forces (Baghdad: Al-Bayan Center Publications Series, 2016), www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/The-future.pdf.
37 Executive Order No. 91 (2016).
38 Republic of Iraq, General Secretariat for the Council of Ministers, “Decisions of the14th Session of the Cabinet on 7/4/2015,” April 7, 2015, http://cabinet.iq/ArticleShow.aspx?ID=6040.
39 Suadad al-Salhy and Tim Arango, “Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital,” TheNew York Times, June 11, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/world/middleeast/iraq.html.
40 For information on the PMF and ISF repelling ISIL’s advance on Samarra, see Calum Paton, “Inside Samarra: Iraq’s holy city that has withstood a decade-long Isis and al-Qaeda onslaught,” International Business Times, January 18, 2017, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/inside-samarra-iraqs-holy-city-that-has-withstood-decade-long-isis-al-qaeda-onslaught-1595177; Leith Fadel, “ISIS falls apart in Sammara countryside as the Iraqi forces liberate several villages,” AMN, February 3, 2013, https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/isis-falls-apart-samarra-countryside-full-retreat/.
41 Babak Dehghanpisheh, “Special Report: The Fighters of Iraq Who Answer to Iran,” Reuters, November 12, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-militias-specialreport-idUSKCN0IW0ZA20141112.
42 Mark Tran and Spencer Ackerman, “Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch attacks to recapture towns from Isis,” The Guardian, August 22, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/iraqi-kurdish-forces-attacks-recapture-towns-isis.
43 “Peshmerga Fight ISIS in Nineveh; Militants an Hour away from Baghdad,” Rudaw,June 26, 2014, http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/260620141.
44 “Iraq Christians Flee as Islamic State Takes Qaraqosh,” BBC News, August 7, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28686998.
45 A total of 5,270 Yazidis are estimated to have been captured by ISIL in 2014, most ofthem women and children. Countless others died, and mass graves are still being discovered as more territory is explored and liberated. Over 150,000 Yazidis fled Sinjar to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and thousands more fled to Mt. Sinjar. Jeremy P. Barker, “A Flicker of Hope? Implications of the Genocide Designation for Religious Minorities in Iraq,” Religious Freedom Institute, July 30, 2016, https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/30/a‑flicker-of-hope-implications-of-the-genocide-designation-for-religious-minorities-in-iraq; Samuel Smith, “ISIS to Crucified Christians: ‘If You Love Jesus, You Will Die Like Jesus’,” Christian Post, November 28, 2016, www.christianpost.com/news/isis-told-crucified-christians-if-you-love-jesus-you-will-die-like-jesus-171766/; Human Rights Watch, Iraq: ISIS Abducting, Killing, Expelling Minorities (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2014), https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/19/iraq-isis-abducting-killing-expelling-minorities; Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” The New York Times, August 13, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/14/world/middleeast/isis-enshrines-a-theology-of-rape.html?_r=0.
46 Smith, “ISIS to Crucified Christians”; Nina Shea, “The Islamic State’s Christian and Yizidi Sex Slaves,” Hudson Institute, July 31, 2015, https://www.hudson.org/research/11486-the-islamic-state-s-christian-and-yizidi-sex-slaves; Eliza Griswold, “Is this the End of Christianity in the Middle East?”, New York Times, July 22, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/magazine/is-this-the-end-of-christianity-in-the-middle-east.html?_r=0.
47 United Nations Security Council, Letter dated 25 June 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, S/2014/440, June 25, 2014, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2014/440.
48 Caleb Weiss, Threat Matrix: A Blog of the Long War Journal. Blog post. “Iranian general at the forefront of the Tikrit offensive,” Foundation for the Defense ofDemocracies, March 5, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/03/iranian-general-at-the-forefront-of-the-tikrit-offensive.php.
49 Dehghanpisheh, “Special Report: The Fighters of Iraq.”
50 Chelsea J. Carter, Tom Cohen, and Barbara Starr, “US jet fighters, drones strike ISIS fighters, convoys in Iraq,” CNN, August 9, 2014, edition.cnn.com/2014/08/08/world/iraq-options/index.html.
51 “Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seriously injured after US-led air strike in Iran,” Firstpost, April 22, 2015, http://www.firstpost.com/world/islamic-state-chief-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-seriously-injured-after-us-led-air-strike-in-iran-2206502.html.
52 Saif Hameed, “Iraq Special Forces Advance in Tikrit, US Coalition Joins Fight,” Reuters, March 26, 2015, www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-idUSKBN0MM0R220150326.
53 Kathleen J. McInnis, Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State (CRS Report No. R44135) (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016), https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44135.pdf.
54 In addition, to the US, other international Coalition members have also been involved in training and support for the TMF, including personnel from the UK, the Netherlands, and Spain.
55 Human Rights Watch, Ruinous Aftermath. Militias Abuses Following Iraq’s Recaptureof Tikrit (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/09/20/ruinous-aftermath/militias-abuses-following-iraqs-recapture-tikrit.
56 Human Rights Watch, Iraq: Fallujah Abuses Test Control of Militias. Investigate Government Command Responsibility; ISIS Stops Civilians from Fleeing. (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/09/iraq-fallujah-abuses-test-control-militias.
57 McInnis, Coalition Contributions.
58 All US funding provided under the Iraq Train and Equip authority (known as section 1326, for the section of the National Defense Authorization Act it falls under) must be “vetted for associations with terrorist groups or with groups associated with the Iranian government, and must commit to promoting respect for human rights and the rule oflaw.” For more on these regulations, see the following Congressional Research Service brief: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc811092/m2/1/high_res_d/IF10040_2015Jan09.pdf. For more on vetting for credible allegations of gross human rights violations, under theLeahy law, see https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-leahy-law-and-human-rights-accountability-in-afghanistan-too-little-too-late-or-a-model-for-the-future/.
59 German Foreign Office, Iraq: German Bundestag approves training mission for Kurdish Peshmerga. (Berlin: German Foreign Office 2015), http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Aussenpolitik/Laender/Aktuelle_Artikel/Irak/150129_Bundestag-PeschmergaAusbildung.html.