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US Policy Has Facilitated the Paramilitary Takeover of Iraq

Amid tensions between Washington and Tehran, it is important to examine the prominent role paramilitaries play in Iraq.

Members of the Hashd al-Shaabi, or "Popular Mobilization Forces" (PMF), paramilitaries stand guard during a funerary procession in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on October 26, 2019.

On January 3, around 1:00 am local time, Iranian General Qassim Suleimani was killed by a drone strike on his way from Baghdad International Airport. The assassination was directed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who authorized his death in June, two months after he designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization.

Trump specified that Suleimani was only to be targeted if Iraqi militias with relationships to Tehran killed Americans, during heightened tensions, and that he’d have final approval. These conditions were satisfied when Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was killed during a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. The U.S. blamed the attack on Kataib Hezbollah, though Iraqi officials have recently called this claim into question. Hamid’s death led to a bloody spiral that in only four days triggered retaliatory airstrikes, Kataib Hezbollah helping to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and finally, the killing of Suleimani, along with the militia’s commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Given his prominent ties to Iraqi paramilitaries like Kataib Hezbollah, Suleimani’s death is an opportunity to examine the role that those groups have come to play in Iraqi politics and society. Indeed, before it was storming the embassy, Kataib Hezbollah was one of many paramilitary groups firing on Iraqi protesters that were taking on the government through demonstrations, marches and civil disobedience. Paramilitaries are one of many actors currently shaping Iraq through complex networks of mafia rule, in the legacy of intensive sanctions in the 1990s and the disastrous 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The situation has severely worsened due to the war against ISIS, ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran, and Baghdad’s failure to rein in semi-autonomous armed groups. Mass movements will need to confront the problem directly, before political and economic democracy can settle in the country.

Saddam Hussein as Warlord

The 2003 Iraq War is largely to blame for the role that organized militias and violent profiteering now play in the country. However, the militias are simply building on changes in the Iraqi political landscape that go back two decades. On September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein responded to a sluggish economy, increasingly confident left-wing movements and revolutionary upheaval in Iran by sending troops into Iranian Khuzestan (an important oil-producing province with a significant Arab minority). While the U.S. initially backed both sides, selling weapons to Iran in secret, it later backed Iraq exclusively.

The Iran-Iraq War led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, over a million injuries and institutionally defensive posturing in Tehran when it comes to Iraq. It also greatly militarized the Iraqi economy and strengthened the armed forces as a political actor. Further, the war gave Hussein the chance he needed to shift away from nominally left-wing one-party rule under the Ba’athists. The war intensified an existing pattern of public purges and fearmongering to build informal mafia networks that leaned into him through fealty, terror and dictatorial patronage.

When the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, it was followed up by the Gulf War and an infamous program of United Nations sanctions that isolated Iraq’s economy and worsened existing trends. During the 1990s, sanctions made Iraqis highly dependent on informal political ties and smuggling rings, which worsened corruption and boosted Hussein’s position even further. Sanctions also made Iraqis more reliant on family connections, as well as tribal and sectarian affiliation, in order to do basic things. This fragmented communities and redrew the political map away from a pan-Iraqi vision. It also built up a “pecking order” of junior and senior despots that were either directly linked to Hussein or forced to operate in ways that largely mirrored his ruthless and exploitative regime. Beyond that, sanctions also deepened and normalized anti-democratic tendencies generally in society.

Insurgents and Awakening Councils

By 2003, when U.S.-led coalition forces began occupying the country, the Iraqi state was sapped by corruption, and power was being negotiated through informal networks that paired nicely with paramilitary institutions. Infamously, Iraq’s political and economic institutions were neglected during the occupation, or targeted outright through policy decisions like Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2, which disbanded the Iraqi Armed Forces. Iraqi capitalism adapted to take place in an unstable political environment governed by a weak state, foreign military, criminals, and an increasingly powerful grouping of paramilitaries, insurgents and government officials that were linked to them.

As a result, networks of cash distribution mediated by community elites thrived in a climate of much looser contract and private-sector regulation. After decades of warmongering, dictatorship and sanctions, governing institutions from the municipal to federal levels lacked the bureaucratic and technical capacity (including financial and bureaucratic infrastructure) to do the job themselves. This ineffectiveness massively worsened problems of the Hussein era and reinforced networks for wielding power that paired very effectively with paramilitary institutions. The U.S. must be blamed, almost singularly, for pursuing policies that led to such an outcome.

The insurgency that followed the 2003 invasion continued past the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2011, which left behind a military presence based in the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It was at once an uprising against foreign militaries and an effort increasingly driven by strategic connections that armed groups made with foreign powers (including Iran and Syria). The insurgency was also an explosion of sectarian, tribal and ethnic anxiety, fanned by the interventionism of rich countries. It mobilized these anxieties into armed organizations, both established on these lines of affiliation and centered on powerful men who mimed Hussein’s rule. This is partly because they were members of the old regime in the first place, such as the tribal militiamen and former Ba’athists who later became active in ISIS, or at least understood power in the same kinds of ways.

Iraqi insurgents were politically diverse and often gravitated between different benefactors. For purposes of time and space, they cannot all be described, but it’s worth considering the example of the paramilitary intellectual Moktada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is the son of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, and switched from an initially firebrand anti-American posture that was relatively friendly to Iran, to an Iraqi nationalism that is framed by Shia Islam and hostility to intervention by both countries. Al-Sadr has now switched again, at the last minute, to support the establishment figure Mohammad Allawi against protesters. There are also times when an insurgent group that initially worked against the United States would switch to align with its interests.

The clearest example of this is the Sons of Iraq program and its related “Awakening Councils.” In 2007, struggling with massive troop losses and continued violence, the U.S. adopted a new counterinsurgency strategy with an emphasis on cooperation with Iraqi paramilitaries. The Awakening Councils successfully brought together semi-tribal elites that were largely Sunni, and many of whom were former insurgents, in strategic alliance with the United States. Tribesmen joined volunteer security forces that had successfully complemented the actions of coalition forces and the Iraqi military in order to secure a degree of security and stability in local areas.

Islamic State and the Popular Mobilization

It is critical to remember that while paramilitaries do make strategic alliances with foreign governments and different institutions, these ties are constantly being re-evaluated and may change very quickly. Arguably, that is exactly what happened when ISIS exploded into northern Iraq in 2015 and made alliances with Sunni tribesmen that were disaffected with Baghdad (and some of whom fought with the Awakening Councils only a few years earlier).

This complex medley of forces is what accounted for the strange bedfellows that participated in the war against ISIS. Despite their prior animosity, the United States and Iran quietly and unofficially worked together to support diverse paramilitary forces in Iraq (while still working against each other in Syria). There were five major tendencies in the anti-ISIS forces:

1) “Shrine militias” that mobilized to defend important Shiite Muslim religious centers in accordance with an official fatwa (“religious legal opinion”) by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is based in Najaf;

2) Paramilitaries that fought against foreign troops in the previous decade, have strong connections to Iran (and Qassim Suleimani in particular), and are associated with key Iraqi politicians;

3) Paramilitaries that are associated with Moktada al-Sadr, embrace a form of Iraqi nationalism that is Shiite Islamist, politically anchor themselves in Ayatollah al-Sistani (rather than his still-respected Iranian counterpart Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), and oppose Iranian influence;

4) Christian, Yazidi, Kurdish and other ethnic minority self-defense groups; and

5) Tribal paramilitaries that supported the government and did not join up with ISIS.

Ultimately, the war against ISIS saw offensives by Turkey, Iran and an international coalition led by the United States, as well as the re-emergence and proliferation of the above groups that went on to both cooperate and compete with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

After the collapse of Iraqi security forces in Mosul in June 2014, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki authorized a government commission to bring together disparate paramilitaries under a single umbrella group. The result was Hashd al-Shaabi (or Hashd for short, meaning “Popular Mobilization Forces”), a semi-autonomous organization that now claims 152,000 troops in 60 different paramilitaries. Of course, many of these are likely to be “ghost fighters” designed to soak up government paychecks; 122,000 Hashd fighters are currently receiving salaries.

Hashd is notorious in Iraq for infiltrating weak state institutions as an independent actor with strong Iranian ties. Despite major legislation in 2016 meant to clarify Hashd’s legal status as a separate military branch, the group continues to influence politicians, impose its own toll booths and trade tariffs, engage in the formal and informal economy, and maintain its own connections with foreign governments. Ahead of a major parliamentary vote in May 2018, Hashd effectively set up the Fatah Alliance as a political wing, leading to widespread condemnation. Regardless, Fatah Alliance came in second behind Moktada al-Sadr’s Sairoun (which won 54 seats) to gain 47 seats in the Iraqi assembly — a step towards paramilitary democracy.

Hashd’s appeal is partly that it’s seen as a real alternative to Baghdad that gets things done, including road maintenance to holy sites in Najaf, water management in Kirkuk and waste management in Basra. Other paramilitary and semi-tribal armed groups in Iraq have behaved similarly, creating their own institutions, refusing to properly disarm, involving themselves in organized crime (smuggling in particular, some in a throwback to the sanctions years), and generally distorting the political system with their mafia-like activities. While “shrine militias” tend to have a better reputation, they’re still violent and often extract revenue from major Shiite Muslim holy sites.

It is important to be clear about the problem faced through groups like Hashd. It isn’t necessarily that they are “pro-Iran” or “pro-Saudi.” Often, the alliances that Iraqi paramilitaries make with foreign governments are complex, with people like Qassim Suleimani treating them as low-cost allies with independent command structures. The issue is that they are basically wild cards that exist inside and outside the official system at the same time. Not only do paramilitaries exploit this ambiguity to pursue semi-independent policies and interests, but also, they’ve been gathering enough power to become “king makers” in the government.

This is dangerous because in spite of paramilitaries like Hashd opposing a Hussein-style dictatorship as well as a U.S. military role in Iraq and Syria, they can switch their political objectives very quickly. It is entirely possible for a government (or even a company) to make inroads with different paramilitaries to wield power without the approval of democratic institutions meant to value equal citizenship. The result would be a new kind of dictatorship that replicates the informal power structures and patronage networks of the Hussein years.

The United States is worsening the problem with its reckless and aggressive behavior, which hardens the lines that paramilitaries take, and pushes them to generally agree on the need to push out Washington. Although this is a sympathetic objective, the danger is that Tehran moves to consolidate its own position in such a way that competing paramilitaries jointly divide control with political parties and weak state institutions. The parallel would be the Syrian occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, which only ended with popular action. It is very likely that ongoing protests in Iraq are the most realistic mechanism for closing that possibility, and reining in the paramilitaries before they turn into a permanent part of the Iraqi societal landscape.

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