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Iraq after Petraeus: How do you solve a problem called militia?

Commentary, 19 September 2008
One of the many issues that face General Ray Odierno as he settles his massive military frame into the chair left empty by General David Petraeus is how to deal with the militias. Maintaining the momentum of the recent military successes relies on the continuing professional development of the Iraqi Security Forces. But if these forces are to have credibility the militia issue must be tackled.

The presence of militias in Iraq has been a thorn in the side of both the Coalition and the Iraqi Government. There is no simple solution and things may come to a head with the Awakening Council – Al-Sahwa – running loose following the handover of Anbar Province and the current intense SOFA negotiations with the US.

The concept of ‘militia’ seems to be an ever changing one. At one time it was a purely descriptive term applied to non-regular forces who augmented the standing army in emergencies, especially during the American War of Independence. But recently, and perhaps especially in the Iraq context, a significantly pejorative tone accompanies the word. And it may even be for that reason that Arab commentators prefer to transliterate the word ‘milishiya’ rather than use an Arabic alternative. Indeed in the Iraqi context what seemed like a minor problem in 2003 has developed into a major issue in the years following the invasion, where unauthorised armed groups still feature as a fact on the political landscape. A common quip by the Coalition was that the Iraqi idea of a political party was a turbaned man supported by a militia. Five and a half years and three elections have not done much to change that image.

The Militia Law which was passed by the CPA in 2004 decreed that all such unauthorised militias should be disbanded and then formally re-integrated into the official Iraqi Security Forces. This was only actioned to a partial extent owing to local and factional interests. The most palpable was the case of the Peshmerga in the Kurdish regions. Although some were indeed integrated into the divisions recruiting in the North, it proved too difficult to disband the rest. The reason was that there were too many of them: the Kurdish region is an area where every boy wants to grow up and join the ‘Pesh’ – and with its history of being assailed from all sides (Turkey, Iran and even Baghdad during the Baathist rule) the Peshmerga is seen as synonymous with Kurdistan. Not only do the Kurds want to maintain an independent force to counter any future aggression from the central government, but they fear for another bout of internecine – KDP and PUK – feuding. As a result, although they would never admit it, they wish to maintain local force levels sufficient to deal with such internal squabbling without disadvantage to their own faction. The Coalition and the Iraqi government also face another problem which is establishing the exact number of the Peshmerga with estimates varying from 80,000 to 180,000 – and there are even suggestions of up to 300,000. As with all militia, some members are more active than others.

The issue currently on the table is what to do with the Awakening Council – Al-Sahwa. This force was instigated in 2006 by the Americans in their efforts to counter Al-Qa’ida in Anbar Province. The success of the Surge owes as much to revised tactics, including empowering the Iraqis, as to the increased US troop numbers. Although the tide was turning against Al-Qa’ida owing to their inhumane tactics, it was the persuasion and payment of the local Sunni tribal chiefs that undoubtedly played a large part in suppressing the terrorists. The inspiring sobriquets – Sahwa, Awakening Movement/Council, Sons of Iraq – by which the force are known is also testimony to the respect they have earned. However, now that Al-Qa’ida has been effectively (but perhaps only temporarily) neutralised in most of Iraq, the Maliki government seeks not only to disband the Awakening Council but even to arrest some of the members (reports say 650) whom they accuse of being insurgents and criminals. Despite promises to integrate 58,000 into the ISF, this has yet to be seen. The Americans are concerned that should this happen their success in reducing violence could erode as Al-Qa’ida come seeping back and find willing accomplices in the disaffected ranks of the disbanded Sahwa.

Nouri al-Maliki’s motives in clobbering the Sahwa are understandable: he wishes to be seen to be fair, having recently challenged the Shia militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi. He also fears that they may decide to convert their military successes into political power. This thought worries not only the government but also the Sunni bloc who see themselves as the legitimate representatives of their confessional interests and do not relish rivals, especially ones with guns.

The Coalition will stop paying the Sahwa (between $300 and $1000 per man per month) in October when the Iraqis are expected to assume this task. But it is not clear whether they will and efforts to integrate more than a few thousand have foundered. General Odierno must use his persuasion and experience to assist the Iraqis to resolve this pressing issue as a priority. With a real upturn in the economy and employment still some way off, he must find a solution for the men in a militia America recruited and created, otherwise he may find himself blamed, like Paul Bremer, for disbanding the army in 2003. It may be that the best solution is for the US to continue to pay them in some way – after all it is probably money that buys the most loyalty, albeit temporarily, amongst the Iraqi tribes.

By Colonel Alastair Campbell, Director, RUSI Qatar  

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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