Friday, September 27, 2013

The Baghdad Division: Iraqi Shi‘a Militia Elements to Form State-Backed Force

The Iraqi government plans to form a division comprised of Iraqi Shi’a militia members. This planned division will be deployed in Baghdad. This development is recognition by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that current security measures are ineffective. While the formation of this division may appeal to the Iraqi Shi’a, it may lead to further discontent by the Iraqi Sunnis. Al-Qaeda in Iraq will capitalize on the formation of this division and seek new opportunities to escalate sectarian violence in Iraq. The formation of the division will damage Maliki’s credentials and likely lead to further instability.

The Plan to form the Baghdad Special Division 

On September 19, reports emerged that the Iraqi government is planningto form a “special division” in Baghdad comprised of Iraqi Shi’a militias. Ostensibly, the force will be tasked with defending Baghdad from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacks and operations. The force will include members of three prominent Iraqi Shi’a militias, the Mahdi Army, Asai’b ahl al-Haq [AAH], and Katai’b Hezbollah [KH]. Other reportsindicate that the force will include members of the Badr organization. The same report added that the force will be commanded by a leading member of the Badr organization. However, a senior member of the Badr organization, Qassim al-Araji, deniedthat the government has approached the organization about joining such a force. Al-Araji emphasized that military orders should come from one command. This statement contradicts statements made by Badr leader and minister of transportation, Hadi al-Amiri, who in a speech in Dhi Qarcalled for allowing members of the Badr organization to be part of the security-providing effort due to their experience. 

In reacting to the news about the formation of this division, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), Sadiq al-Laban, deniedthat the government has plans to form this division. He added that the Iraqi military has enough forces to provide security. While the formation of this force is not yet confirmed, the plan portends a number of negative consequences.   

This militia mobilization does not compare directly to existing Sahwa forces. The formation of forces drawn from community members has happened before, with the formationof the predominantly Iraqi Sunni Sahwa (awakening) councils In 2006. The formation of the Baghdad Special Division force may appear to be similar to the formation of Sahwas since both are ostensibly intended to counter the threat of AQI. However, the major difference is that the potential new Baghdad Special Division will be mostly manned by groups that were participants in the violence of 2006-2007. The Baghdad Special Division is therefore a re-arming of these militias. Additionally, these groups will operate in mixed areas, raising the potential for killings based on identity and targeting of political opponents. 

The plan to form a potential special Baghdad division demonstrates that security measures in Baghdad have failed and that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lacks confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces. Moreover, the legitimization of the Shi’a militias in question by placing them on state salaries makes it possible for them to participate in politics, where militia groups legally cannot. Politically, the support that these groups would receive from the state will therefore make them competitive as the country gears up for the 2014 elections. 
Implications for the Iraqi Shi’a 

Increased attacks in predominately Iraqi Shi’a areas have caused the Iraqi Shi’a to lose patience. On September 21, anattack on a funeral in Sadr City resulted in the death of at least 67 people and the injury of at least 163 people. Days after the attack, residents of Sadr City protestedand attacked the municipal building, demanding the handover of suspects who had been arrested after the attack by members of the Mahdi Army. Furthermore, the Sadrist Mahdi Army reportedly warnedthe Sadr City-based 11th Iraqi Army division either to hand over the suspects or depart Sadr City. Furthermore, reports indicate that members of the Mahdi Army deployednear the site of the bombing. This is the clearest indication of Mahdi Army members mobilizing since 2008. Given these attacks, the formation of this new defense force may play a role in assuaging the fears of the Iraqi Shi’a that they are without protection. 

Nonetheless, the formations of this new division will likely cause further violence among Iraqi Shi’a groups. For instance, the Sadrists and AAH,- which both claim to be the representatives of the legacy of Sadrist leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s father, Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr,- have clashedas recently as June of this year, and their rivalries have only intensified since. On September 21, a Sadrist sourceannounced that 150 members of AAH have rejoined the Sadrist trend. The split was denied by AAH’s political bureau member, Amir al-Tai, whostated that the 150 individuals are not even members of AAH. Regardless, it is evident that both sides are already preparing for the next elections. This is especially true as AAH announcedon September 19 that it will participate in the 2014 national elections. This development followed the decisionby Moqtada al-Sadr to re-enter politics after his earlier decision to retire. AAH’s decision to enter the electoral competition means that both groups will vie for the same constituency and the availability and state-funding and support will provide greater financial leverage. Furthermore, the integration of AAH and the Sadrists within a government-backed militia will allow both groups to contend for terrain with state immunity and cause further tensions in already-unstable areas.            
The Entry of Katai’b Hezbollah 

The integration of Katai’b Hezbollah (KH) in the new force would add another layer of concern. KH as a military organization has not been involved in internal Iraqi political affairs. Its missions in the past have includedattacking U.S. military targets and, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the organization has deployedits members in Syria to fight alongside governmental forces within the Abu al-Fadel al-Abbas Brigade (AFAB). The organization is knownto be an extension of the Iranian Quds Force. Therefore, its potential inclusion in the force will signify a problematic trend. It will allow an Iranian-controlled group the opportunity to control terrain in Baghdad and it is unlikely that control will diminish even if the stabilization of Baghdad is accomplished. Similarly, AAH’s formalized control of terrain would allow greater influence of Iranian-backed militias in Baghdad. 

Families of killed individuals and residents protest in Sadr City on 9/25

Implications for the Iraqi Sunnis 

The formation of this force will further antagonize the Iraqi Sunnis. The ISF “Revenge of the Martyrs” campaign which was launchedin August included arrests of Iraqi Sunnis in various areas of the country. That is despite the fact that the operation was carried out by the Iraqi military. Therefore, the potential presence of a predominately Iraqi Shi’a militia will not be perceived as a security measure by the Iraqi Sunnis in Baghdad. It will likely be perceived as an attempt to marginalize them. Iraqiyyah member of the Council of Representatives, Suhad al-Obaidi, anticipatedthat the formation of the force will “lead to [an] increase in sectarian violence since the government will appear as supporting the militias’ work.”  

The Iraqi Sunnis fears are also likely motivated by the remobilizationof militias that took place in May and June of this year in Baghdad. Moreover, there have been recent indications that the militias have been active in Baghdad as evidencedby the discovery of 10 bodies that were hand-cuffed and blind-folded in an area close to Sadr City last week in addition to targeting of Iraqi Sunnis in Dhi Qar and Basra.  

If the force is formed and deployed to mixed areas in Baghdad, the Iraqi Sunnis in those areas will perceive it as a direct threat, and it will become more so if the Division carries out operations that are geared towards making financial gains or displacing the Iraqi Sunnis. This will allow AQI to widen the gap between the Shi’a and Sunni populations in Baghdad and increase the threat of sectarian violence in response to the formation of the force.   

Maliki’s Calculation 

There have not been official and on-the-record statements to confirm or deny the news that a new force has been formed. However, reportsindicate that the idea originated from Prime Minister Maliki’s office. Given the deteriorating security conditions, it is likely Maliki decided to divert attention from the Iraqi Security Forces’ inability to provide protection by ‘outsourcing’ security provision to the militias. As the elections approach, the formation of the force will allow Maliki to distance himself from security failures in addition to burnishing his credentials as a protector of the Iraqi Shi’a.   

In the short-term, the formation of an all Iraqi-Shi’a force may benefit Maliki. In the long-term, however, reliance on the militias will cost him. The population’s anger may be absorbed since they would depend on the community members for protection, but the expected lack of discipline of the militias will damage Maliki’s credibility as commander-in-chief. Furthermore, the formation of this force will render Maliki dependent on Iranian-backed militias and for now this will become magnified in light of the recent conclusionof a defense agreement between Iraq and Iran. This prospect will be costly to Maliki him given the negative views the Iraqi public holdtowards the Iranian government. 

Khazali receives gun at AAH function from AAH military member.


Operationally, the Special Baghdad Division would have to deal with the sophisticated organizational capabilities of AQI. The ISF, despite years of training, availability of equipment, and extensive presence in Baghdad has not been able to curtail AQI’s wavesof car bomb attacks. It is, therefore, not clear if the division would be able to achieve its stated objectives.

For AQI, the formation of the division is an ideal scenario. AQI will be able to portray the division as an anti-Iraqi Sunni force that is intended to marginalize the Iraqi Sunnis. It is important to watch whether AQI will launch preemptive operations in areas where the division may be deployed, such Baghdad’s southern suburbs of Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah.
Moving forward, it is critical for Maliki and Iraqi politicians to resort to politics as well security measures to manage the country’s crisis. Maliki recently criticizedthose who lambast the “biggest Iraqi component [Iraqi Shi’a]” which is a possible reference to controversialstatements made by Iraqi Sunni politician, Ahmed al-Alawni, with regards to attacking the Iraqi Shi’a. Maliki further added that there is a “sea of blood” between those figures and “us.” It is, unclear, if the “us” refers to the state or the Iraqi Shi’a. At any rate, this rhetoric may appeal to the Iraqi Shi’a, but it will increase sectarian tensions,  further antagonize the Iraqi Sunnis, and increase the appeal of an insurgency.     

Ahmed Aliis senior Iraq research analyst and the Iraq Team lead at the Institute for the Study of War.