Friday, January 10, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #7: Iraqi Army Recruits Volunteers for Anbar Operations

by ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi government is providingexpedited training for civilian volunteers in Muthana Military Base to participate alongside the Iraqi Army in the ongoing operations in Anbar. Hundreds of volunteers have reportedly gathered near the base to sign up, while additional hundreds are already undergoing a three week training cycle before they are shipped to Anbar. Police directorates affiliated with Ministry of Interior have already started to accept volunteers.

In Baghdad, an anonymous “senior” source from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that three weeks of training for other volunteers would occur at the Muthana Airport Military Base. After that, the volunteers might join the Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar in a month. The source added that the volunteers will be assigned to support the Iraqi Security Forces participating in Jazeera desert operations. According to the source, the volunteers will not engage in military operations until their training is complete.  

Also, the source stated that since the training takes a few weeks, while the security forces might finish their operations in Anbar sooner, the volunteers may be used to hold territory in the wake of clearance operations conducted by the Iraqi Security Forces. According to the source, the MoD took this step because ongoing operations in Anbar require additional support in order to cover the vast desert areas.

The source also stated that the ministry received more than a thousand requests from residents of Baghdad who expressed interest in participating in the ongoing operations in Anbar. The source added that there is a recruitment effort to coordinate with the provinces of Basra, Babil, and Wasit to provide volunteering opportunities for individuals interested. According to the source, the security forces need hundreds of new members to fill gaps, especially in Anbar. A volunteer stated that most of the volunteers are males between the ages of 18 and 20. He also stated that one of the security patrols roamed his eastern Baghdad neighborhood and announced the opportunity to  volunteer.

The Iraqi government has also acknowledged this new volunteer program. Iraq’s semi-governmental newspaper, al-Sabah, reported that thousands of young people have appeared to volunteer. Its report also indicated that young people from Anbar province have decided to sign up. It is unclear if people from Anbar are signing up, but al-Sabah’s report is intended to deflect the impression that the recruitment is targeting Shi’a volunteers. According to one of the organizers of the volunteer campaign, army captain Jaafar Jassim Mohammed, training will take about 45 days. 

In a likely counterattack by AQI, a suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device [SVBIED] targeted the volunteers gathered near Muthana Airport Military Base on January 9, which resulted in the death of 26 individuals and injury of 42 others. The attack was almost certainly conducted by AQI. While it is possible that AQI targeted the volunteers solely because it had the opportunity to attack a large gathering, it is likely that AQI targeted them to further pose as the defender of Iraqi Sunnis. The organization has repeatedly portrayed itself as such.

This new recruitment campaign is part of a continued effort by the Iraqi government to augment security forces with civilian volunteers. On January 4, Wasit police commander, General Raed Shakir Jawdat, announced that more than 9000 people have volunteered to go to Anbar. As a result, extra stations for volunteers to sign up have been established because the IP stations in the province were not enough. While the volunteers are motivated by the cause of fighting AQI in Anbar, these developments will increase the perception of Iraqi Sunnis that the ongoing operations in Anbar are meant to target Sunnis rather that targeting AQI in the province.

Regardless of the identity of the volunteers, the recruitment campaign is being seen as a sectarian campaign, as evidenced by some Iraqi Sunni social media sources that describe the volunteers as “militias.” The tribes in Anbar will also likely perceive a newly-recruited force from Baghdad as intruders and criticize the Iraqi government for not recruiting from Anbar, which is a habitual complaint among Anbaris. Since the recruitment campaign just started, it is too early to tell how the volunteers will be deployed. Nonetheless, if the Iraqi government truly intends to deploy the new recruits in the Anbar desert areas after their training is complete, the step confirms the government’s future plans to launch wider desert operations. More importantly, it signifies a potential new strategy to augment the Iraqi Security Forces with a popular defense force.