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Tribal Volunteers:
Anbar’s New Anti-Extremist Militias Get Bigger, Cause New Problems

Kamal al-Ayash
In Anbar, tens of thousands of local volunteers are now protecting the province. But amid increasing militarization, there is no central command - and many hidden agendas.
30.11.2016  |  Anbar
Iraqi security forces celebrate after recapturing Ramadi from extremists. Local tribes have since joined the security efforts, but are causing concern as numbers grow. (photo: احمد الربيعي )
Iraqi security forces celebrate after recapturing Ramadi from extremists. Local tribes have since joined the security efforts, but are causing concern as numbers grow. (photo: احمد الربيعي )

In the past, Anbar local Abdul Rahman al-Ani says he used to take the roads in the city of Ramadi allocated for the use of the army and the security forces. “They were less crowded,” says the Anbar University lecturer. “But today the opposite is true. The military roads are just as crowded as the civilian ones, because the number of cars licensed for military use has increased so much.”

It is yet another sign of the increasing militarisation in the central Iraqi province, since the extremist group known as the Islamic State was driven out.

“Every day I also pass through a number of military checkpoints as well as a number of checkpoints manned by tribal militias,” al-Ani adds. “There is really no reason for all of the checkpoints, it’s just that the tribal militias want to show off their power and influence. The tribal militias now feel superior to ordinary citizens,” he complains.

The way these forces are deploying is of concern. Though the forces are tribal in nature, it raises doubts about their intentions in the long run. 

The tribal militias in Anbar were formed as a response to the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group. After the IS group were pushed out of the province, the tribal militias, numbering in the tens of thousands, were created to take over security after the fighting forces moved on.

Anbar is a mostly Sunni-Muslim-populated province and keeping the Iraqi military or the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias there after the combat was done would have caused uncomfortable tensions, and potentially even more violence.

“The most important reason for creating these militias was to form troops that were capable of supporting the official security forces,” MP Mohammed al-Karbouli, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defence Committee, told NIQASH.  

In Anbar, the new tribal militias started with around 15,000 men but now the number appears to be increasing. Some now suggest there are as many 20,000 men involved around the province. Most of them use private homes or farmyards or compounds as their base; nearly all of these are not controlled by official security forces and some are properties which were confiscated from individuals thought to be associated with the IS group.

“The way these forces are deploying is of concern,” Mazen al-Hazimawi, a 59-year-old tribal leader, told NIQASH. “Even though the forces are tribal in nature, it raises doubts about their intentions in the long run. The local police and army, made up of the sons of the province, are capable of controlling the province. I don’t have a problem with the tribal militias but it is all getting a little intense.”

The militias usually gain a semi-official status after a proposal, which includes justifications for the militia’s existence, such as lack of security in a certain area, is submitted to the Iraqi government. After the militia has been formed, leaders start asking for weapons and equipment. 

In fact, al-Hazimawi says he is in favour of the militias, agreeing that Anbar needs a tribal force to support the official military and police, and one which is seen as the Sunni equivalent to the increasingly powerful Shiite Muslim volunteer militias.

But it’s getting out of hand. He says he went to the market one day to find a number of his relatives wearing military uniforms and attaching lieutenant and colonel stripes to their uniforms. “I thought the sky was raining military ranks,” he jokes.

A volunteer militia is not a new phenomenon in Anbar. To rid the province of a former Sunni extremist group, Al Qaeda, the US military enlisted and paid the salaries of, local men, convincing them to fight against an organization that some of them had previously supported. The militias formed as a result were known as the Awakening or Sahwa movement.

The number involved in the Awakening movement as estimated at around 90,000 men and they were in action around Iraq, with a central command based in Ramadi. But even though locals see echoes of the Awakening movement in the current mobilisation, that centralized kind of command is lacking in the current evolution of these Sunni militias.

Critics of the new militias say that there are other motives for their creation too - including money, power and one-upmanship with other tribes. 

Rajeh al-Issawi, a local politician who heads Anbar’s provincial security committee, told NIQASH that he had asked the central government to work on limiting the number of militias, which have apparently started to multiply of their own accord, and without permission from the authorities.

“These kinds of militias cause a lot of confusion and fear,” al-Issawi said.

The current chaos is the result of an increase in the number of tribal militias and the number of their many leaders, suggests Majid al-Jumaili, a mid-level commander with one of the volunteer militias in Anbar’s Karmah district. The fact that there is so much confusion about who is in charge and what they are supposed to be doing could have an impact on the victories won against the IS group, al-Jumaili cautions.

“If it wasn’t for the local security who decided to arrest the sons of certain tribes who were wearing military outfits without any formal permission or orders, then the Karmah district would be suffering the same as other cities who have too many of these troops,” al-Jumaili argued.

Critics of the new militias say that there are other motives for their creation too: Such as the creation of a Sunni Muslim force that was capable of standing up to Iraq’s occasionally controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who have been engaged in the fight against the IS group since mid-2014.

It is also possible that the leaders of the militias have other reasons. A militia can make one tribe superior to another and there could also be financial gains to be had, from creating a security force that exists only on paper. Some of the locals also hope that if they join a militia they might eventually become part of the official army, complete with the accompanying benefits and regular wages.

“Some tribal leaders have become a link between Iraq’s political machine and their own clans,” points out local tribal leader, Mahmoud al-Dulaimi. “The politicians provide them with money and moral support in return for political gains. The militias are also trying to take on more responsibility, such as reconstruction projects – just as happened in 2008.”

Still, as Jamal Mohammedi, a retired army officer who recently joined one of the Sunni Muslim militias in Anbar, says: “These forces operate under many different names but don’t forget, they did volunteer to protect their own neighbourhoods. They have made sacrifices and that shouldn’t be ignored.” 

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