Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Iranian-Backed Militias Cause a Political Crisis for Iraq

By Patrick Martin and Omar al-Dulimi with Kimberly Kagan and Sinan Adnan

Key takeaway

A new political crisis is brewing in Iraq as Sunni political leaders are threatening to boycott the Council of Representatives. Reconciliation of Sunni political and tribal leaders is an essential prerequisite for reconstituting the Iraqi state. Iraq's Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, made some significant attempts to reach out to and reconcile with Sunni political and tribal leaders. Notably, he and the Council of Ministers initiated a vote on the National Guard Law and the Justice and Accountability Law on February 3, the passing of which was a key promise that brought the Sunnis into his government in September of 2014. However, Prime Minister Abadi's inability to control the Shi’a militias is undermining his credibility and the coherence of the Iraqi state.

Anbar Sunni figures have complained that their marginalization has been ongoing for months. Sunni politicians and tribal leaders have repeatedly called for weapons and material support to Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar to face ISIS fighters, and their pleas have largely gone unaddressed. In addition, the Sunni populace is reluctant to trust its security to the Shi’a militias and members of the “Popular Mobilization” after multiple reports that the militias engaged in sectarian targeting of Iraqi Sunnis in areas of operations like Diyala, Anbar, and Jurf as-Sakhar in northern Babil. 

Three events have amplified and accelerated the complaints of Sunni leaders about the Shi’a militias. First, Shi’a political forces attempted to manipulate the National Guard Law after it was voted on by Sunni ministers in the Council of Ministers and actually passed the Justice and Accountability Law that deals with the De-Baathification without an agreement of Iraqi Sunni ministers. The second is the murder of two Sunni tribesmen in the Ramadi area, almost certainly carried out by Shi’a militiamen. The last is the killing of a major Sunni tribal leader, his son, and his bodyguards, after being kidnapped from their convoy south of Baghdad. This paper reviews the unfolding reactions of Iraq's Sunni political leadership to the events of the past two weeks and the consequences they may have on the integrity of the central government. 

The National Guard Law and the Justice and Accountability Law

On February 3, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi opened a Council of Ministers session to vote on the National Guard Law and the draft modifications to the Justice and Accountability Law, both of which are important to Sunni politicians. The National Guard Law would form provincial armed units under the command of the Prime Minister. The law originated to create Sunni security forces to be in charge of security in Iraqi Sunni provinces and was a condition outlined by the Sunni political leadership prior to joining the government of PM Abadi. Some Shi’a politicians have hoped to leverage the National Guard Law to have the government pay for the primarily-Shi’a “Popular Mobilization.” Meanwhile, Sunni politicians pushed for modifications to the Justice and Accountability law - also known as the De-Baathification Law - that would enable vetted former Baath party members to re-enter government service and the security forces. Many Sunnis saw changes to the law as necessary for reconciliation of former Baath party officials and security forces, many of which have opposed the Iraqi government. The law had also been used as a method to sideline and reduce the influence of Sunni politicians under former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

For the drafts to become law, the legal procedure requires that the Council of Ministers approve the draft, which is then sent to the State Advisory Council (SAC) of the Justice Ministry for review. The SAC would then send it back to the cabinet. The Cabinet then sends the draft to the CoR. The CoR members would certainly argue over additional modifications, and would then vote on whether or not to enshrine the modifications and the draft into official laws.

Disagreements immediately surfaced between Sunni and Shi’a parties during the Council of Ministers (CoM) voting process. Sunni CoM members reportedly boycotted the vote on the Justice and Accountability Law. A member of the Wataniyya list, Abd al-Karim Abtan, stated that ministers of his list and minsters from the Iraqi Sunni political formation Etihad did not vote on the law and that their CoR members would have the “same stance” at the CoR. He further highlighted the need to abide by the Political Agreement without going into details about the exact reason behind the law’s rejection. The Political Agreement had highlighted the conditions under which Iraqi Sunni political leadership would participate in PM Abadi’s government. However, the Justice and Accountability law still managed to pass the CoM vote, despite Sunni objections, with a “simple majority.”

Sunni politicians also had concerns over the National Guard law, the details of which remain hazy. Leaders of the Iranian-backed militias, working alongside the popular mobilization, participated in drafting the law, and the Sunni politicians are understandably concerned. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis sat on the committee that drafted the law. He is a close ally of Iranian Qods Force Commander Qassem Suleimani and the Vice Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Commission that has authority over the Shi’a-dominated “Popular Mobilization” forces. The United States Department of the Treasury has designated him as a terrorist since July 2009. 

Regardless, the National Guard Law also passed the Council of Ministers, with “all” Sunni members voting in favor, despite a claim by Union of Forces bloc MP Muhammad al-Karbuli that they “did not read it closely.” Both draft laws went to the CoR for voting on February 10. Sunni cries of foul play coincided with their arrival. Speaker Salim al-Juburi delayed the reading of the two laws because they had not been submitted “formally” by the Council of Ministers. A Mutahidun Bloc CoR member, Intisar al-Juburi, stated that the Council of Ministers had bypassed the Advisory Council and sent the draft laws directly to the CoR, though the Presidency Commission of the CoR had realized this “at the last minute” and sent them back to the Advisory Council for legal review. She highlighted that the draft did not include the names of ministers who voted for or against the draft law.On February 11, Vice President and Etihad leader, Osama al-Nujaifi, stated that the draft National Guard Law that was submitted to the CoR was "replaced" and is not the same as the draft voted on at the CoM and that it did not include their proposed modifications. Al-Nujaifi also claimed that the draft Justice and Accountability Law was a more “stringent” version than the law in effect now. He called for an investigation and an emergency meeting with the three presidencies - the Speaker, the President, and the Prime Minister - as well as political leaders on the matter. 

The confusion behind the introduction of the two draft laws to the CoR exacerbated tensions. The very mechanisms that were supposed to reconcile the angry Sunni leadership and promote national unity in the government that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi had championed became a major point of grievance for Sunnis. The draft law fiasco also reinforced their narrative that the government was neglecting their interests in favor of Shi’a interests. 

Albu Jabir killings in Ramadi

The voting process was made even more complicated by a crisis that unfolded nearly simultaneously in the capital of Anbar province. On February 8, two Sunni members of the Albu Jabir tribe were kidnapped at a checkpoint and killed in the Ramadi area. Their bodies were reportedly dumped in front of Anbar Operations Command (AOC) in Ramadi, sparking protests by local tribesmen. The Chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, Sabah Karhut, stated that the two men were detained by the “Popular Mobilization” and executed within the AOC facility. The Albu Jabir tribal leader, Zaidan al-Jabiri, claimed that the execution was ordered by a “Popular Mobilization” leader.

The most plausible scenario puts a Shi’a militia group, most likely Katai’b Hezbollah (KH), at fault for the murders. The two men may have been kidnapped in al-Sjariya, east of Ramadi. This is an area in which KH established a presence and began to participate in security operations on January 28 at the invitation of the Anbar Provincial Council, according to an Anbar Provincial Council member, Jamil Sadiq. This is the furthest extent into Anbar any lethal Shi’a militia has reached since the ISIS attack on Mosul in June of 2014. The killings have likely further diminished the trust of Sunni tribes in the Ramadi area in the “Popular Mobilization” forces deployed in Anbar. 

The National Guard and Justice and Accountability laws thus reached the CoR at a time when Sunni tribal leaders in the “Council of Tribal Sheikhs in Anbar” were calling for the outright removal of all armed groups outside of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police from Anbar province. The governor of Anbar, Suhaib al-Rawi, contradicted Jamil Sadiq when he stated that the government of Anbar had never requested the presence of the “Popular Mobilization” in the first place, and that the security forces had detained a “Popular Mobilization” member in connection with the killings. Sunni tolerance of abuses by the militias had reached an all-time low when the overt militia acts took place in Baghdad (see below). 

The Kidnapping and Execution of Sheikh Qassim Sweidan al-Janabi

The latest major incident to undermine the reconciliation of Sunni political and tribal leaders occurred on February 13, when Shi’a militias kidnapped and executed a major Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Qassim Sweidan al-Janabi, and his entourage. “Unidentified gunmen” manning a checkpoint and wearing “Iraqi security forces uniforms” stopped Sheikh al-Janabi’s convoy and kidnapped him; his son, Mohammad Qasim al-Janabi; eight bodyguards; and Sheikh Janabi’s nephew and member of the CoR, Zaid al-Janabi. Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) spokesperson General Saad Maan stated that the dead bodies of Sheikh al-Janabi, his son, and eight bodyguards were later found inside 3 SUVs, under a bridge in al-Shaab neighborhood, in the mostly Shi’a northeastern Baghdad. However, Zaid al-Janabi was “severely beaten” by the gunmen, but then released likely because he is a member of the Council of Representatives. 

Sunni bloc reactions

The execution of Sheikh al-Janabi elicited strong condemnation from and uproar among Sunni political parties, who saw the latest attack as a clear indication of the growing power of Shi’a militias in Baghdad. A joint statement from two leading political parties, the Union of Iraqi Forces (Etihad) and the 

Wataniyya list, stated that they would suspend their activities in the CoR until further notice. The leadership in both parties stressed the need for the CoM to produce a law that would outlaw militias and to pass a law that would criminalize sectarianism. The Sunni blocs also called for an urgent meeting between the three presidencies - the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of CoR - to discuss the demands presented in the statement. On top of blaming the “well-known militias” for killing Sheikh al-Janabi, the Sunni blocs placed the blame on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, as well as Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi and Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghaban, for the breakdown in security and letting “criminal militias” commit crimes of “ethnic cleansing.” Moreover, both parties announced the formation of an “negotiations committee” that is made up of leaders from both blocs, including Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Juburi, Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. The committee will negotiate with the government over the process and conditions that need to be implemented in order to protect Iraqi Sunnis. 

Sunni political parties have threatened to boycott the parliament. Deputy Prime-Minister Saleh Mutlaq echoed these fears through his response to the killing of Sheikh al-Janabi, when he stated that “we are at the mercy of these gangs,” and that “we cannot participate in this miserable political process any longer, while our sons are being slaughtered.” If it transpires, the withdrawal of Sunni parties from the political process may greatly hinder PM Abadi’s Sunni reconciliation plan and his efforts to reconstitute the Iraqi state. 

Iraqi Sunni political party Etihad and the secular Wataniyya list have boycotted CoR sessions as a response to the incident. This boycott is temporary. On February 15, a CoR member from Etihad stated that ministers from Etihad and Wataniya will boycott sessions of the Council of Minister for four days but will continue to perform duties in their ministries. Also, major Iraqi Sunni figures like the Speaker of the CoR Salim al-Juburi, Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, and Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi appear to be willing to work through the issue. They attended a February 15 meeting with PM Abadi that included the commander of Baghdad Operations Command (BOC), General Abd al-Amir al-Shammari to discuss this development. Also, on February 16, the Defense and Security Committee of the CoR hosted the defense and interior ministers for the same purpose; a meeting which Speaker Juburi attended. 

Sunni political parties in the past have boycotted parliament in order to convey their displeasure with the Maliki government over sectarian issues, such as the arrest warrant for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. This strategy was rarely successful in the Maliki era. The fact that this current boycott is temporary and contained reflects an adaptation of Sunni leaders and a sign of good faith toward PM Abadi.

Shi’a bloc reactions

The blatant murder of Sheikh al-Janabi has also drawn strong condemnations from Shi’a political blocs and the government itself. The main Shi’a political parties are leveraging the issue in order to critique Iranian-backed militias obliquely. They are attempting to differentiate their party’s contributions to the “Popular Mobilization” from those of these other lethal groups. Some are calling for measures that would help the government regain a monopoly on the use of force, although it is not clear that the state can enforce such a monopoly. Other Shi’a parties are also trying to retain Sunni political parties within the government.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’a cleric and leader of the Sadrist Trend, suspended the activities of his militias, the Peace Brigades and the Promised Day Brigades, along with the activities of "other actors" as "proof of good faith." He called on political parties to "show restraint" and not withdraw from the political process. He called on his political bloc to write a "political charter" with the other political blocs so as to prevent sectarian bloodshed. Al-Sadr also stated that past violence against Shi’a does not justify "unjust" aggression against others, adding that "we must together" reject violence and extremism and embrace moderation. 

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), another leading Shi’a political party, said in a statement that the organization condemned the killing of Sheikh Qassim al-Janabi. ISCI offered condolences to the al-Janabi Tribe and stated that the "crime" will not re-stoke "sectarian sedition" and will not hinder national reconciliation efforts. ISCI called for the immediate prosecution of the perpetrators, and called for "all political forces" to be patient and "stand as one" against efforts "to fragment our unity." 

ISCI is also emphasizing that Popular Mobilizations must follow the direction of Shi’a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the religious establishment in Najaf. A member from Mowatin bloc (ISCI) in the CoR, Falih al-Sari, called on the government to monopolize the power to carry weapons, and not to allow groups outside the government to "tamper with the security of the state." Al-Sari further stated that the conditions in "demilitarized zones" have not changed, and that weapons and "group offices" are still present. Moreover, al-Sari stated that the country is undergoing special circumstances that required the participation of a number of "armed groups" in the battle against ISIS. He stated that the CoR does not deny the existence of "offenders and delinquents" among these "armed formations" and is aware that some groups not represented in the CoR operate "illegally," referring to the Iranian backed, lethal Shi’a militias such as Katai’b Hezbollah. He further stated that his political bloc oversees an armed group called Saraya Ashura that is helping the political process and not sabotaging it. However, al-Sari noted that there are other armed groups that do not comply with the instructions of the religious authority in Najaf.

State of Law Alliance (SLA) member Mowafaq al-Rubaie released a statement on February 15 regarding the Sheikh al-Janabi incident. He highlighted that the incident would serve ISIS in undermining the national unity and therefore "PM Abadi should conduct a speedy and professional investigation and not a political one." Al-Rubaie also called for the need to complete the investigation into the Camp Speicher incident in mid-June in which ISIS executed many Iraqi Shi’a members of the Security Forces. 

Government response

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office released a statement condemning the kidnapping of Zaid al-Janabi and the assassination of Sheikh Qassim. It stated that those who carried out the crime aimed to divert the attention of security forces away from battling ISIS and sought to create a rift in the political process. Abadi stated that the government will strike with an “iron fist” against anyone who meddles with the security and lives of Iraqis. Furthermore, an anonymous source in the CoR stated that Speaker al-Juburi decided to call the interior and the defense ministers for the upcoming CoR session in order to uncover the circumstances concerning the attack on Zaid al-Janabi and his uncle. The CoR would also discuss with the ministers the security measures being taken in order to uncover the perpetrators of the attack. Moreover, Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) spokesperson Saad Maan stated that BOC had formed a security committee of senior officers who would investigate the convoy attack. 


A major challenge lies ahead for Prime Minister Abadi. The Sunnis will need to see a concerted push by the central government to reduce the impunity of Shi’a militias. They will also need to see the passage of a National Guard Law and Justice and Accountability Law that satisfies the expectations they initially had when they joined the government. They will also need to lead. Maliki deliberately weakened Sunni leadership by issuing arrest warrants for leading Sunni politicians in 2011, fracturing the tenuous consensus among the remainder and causing them to fight amongst themselves. The fall of Fallujah and then Mosul and other Iraqi Sunni areas in northern and western Iraq have further isolated the Sunnis from their politicians in Baghdad. The current conditions as outlined above are making it more challenging for Iraqi Sunni politicians in Baghdad to appear as effective leaders who can protect and represent their constituency.

The Iraqi Shi’a officials also need to lead, both in helping reconcile Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni minority and in re-establishing the official security force institutions. Moderate Shi’a political parties and leaders, like the PM, likely desire to regulate and marginalize the Iranian-backed militias like Badr, AAH, and KH. Unregulated and sectarian acts by these militias are eroding the sovereignty of the state and its security forces. On the other hand, these militias play a major role on the battlefield countering ISIS, which makes it very challenging for the state to assert control over them. The more the militias become successful and expand their areas of operations, the more their influence increases and the state’s decreases. Even should military operations render ISIS no longer an existential threat, these militias would greatly threaten the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.