In the central Iraqi province of Anbar, a new security force has been evolving over the past few months and it now numbers an estimated 25,000 members – that is almost equal to all the police in the province, around 100 kilometres west of Baghdad.
The force, broadly known as the tribal militias, have the job of protecting their home terrain from attacks by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Although the province is mostly populated by Sunni Muslims and the Islamic State, or IS, group base their ideology on a version of Sunni Islam, the extremists are no longer welcome here. And the tribal militias have been taking over the task of security after official military forces have come and gone.
The tribal militias are all shadow forces and their role should end, when the IS group ends.
The tribal militias could play an important role here in the future, in the same way the so-called Awakening movement did earlier. That older plan, instigated by the US army, involved enlisting and paying the salaries of local men, then convincing them to fight against Al Qaeda, an organization that some of them had previously supported. This US-sponsored plan proved so successful that Al Qaeda was, if not completely, then certainly mostly, driven out of provinces like Anbar where they had previously held more power. And some optimists are now saying the tribal militias could make for a new Iraqi-driven version of the Awakening.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be happening, as the various tribal militias are torn between different leaders and a variety of alliances, including those with the Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim militias, as well as a desire to control resources and reconstruction in their own areas.
Many of the fighters who joined the militias have been made a number of promises, including that they could eventually become part of the official Iraqi security forces, with all the benefits that entails. But none of this seems to be happening and the lack of central command is proving perilous.
The tribal militias are out of control, Rafea Abdul-Kareem al-Fahdawi, a senior member of one of the militias, told NIQASH. Partially this is because the militias have developed in an unsupervised way, he says.
In contrast the Shiite Muslim militias started as a volunteer force, called up by a senior cleric, to defend Iraq against the IS group. Those militias have since become a quasi-official force, under the (relative) control of the Iraqi government who also foot the bill for their payment. The tribal militias are a different case altogether, with a wide number of different permutations in play.
In Haditha, the Jughayfa tribal militias, who held off the IS group for several years, are now supported by the Shiite Muslim militias. Even so there are a number of different tribal factions in this area. There are also a number of different factions in the Heet area.
Meanwhile in Ramadi, most locals are well aware of the patchwork of different loyalties and aims of the various tribal militias. Many of these are simply protecting their own areas, others are lobbying to gain control of reconstruction projects and the funds that come with them.
Meanwhile in the Fallujah district, a Shiite Muslim militia, Hezbollah in Iraq, controls the south of the area to prevent the IS group from moving towards southern provinces, while the al-Bu Issa tribal militias, Sunni Muslims, make up the first line of defence for Fallujah city.
Unlike the Shiite Muslim militias, the various tribal militias in Anbar are not part of any official force, nor are they paid by the government, nor do they have the same kinds of privileges. For example, when a tribal militia’s fighter is injured or killed in fighting, they do not receive any compensation from the government, unlike the Shiite Muslim militias.
“Corruption is rampant within the tribal militias,” al-Fahdawi complains. “Almost half of the members are not from the area and many of the leaders – especially those who don’t come from here – have been appointed without any consideration as to what role they were playing while the IS group was here,” he argues, implying that some of the former supporters of the extremist group, which controlled parts of Anbar for months, might now be in charge of the militias.
“The tribal militias are all shadow forces and their role should end, when the catalyst that created them [the IS group] has ended,” al-Fahdawi adds.
“Although they are present here in Anbar, the majority of these forces do not obey orders from local commanders,” says Tariq Yusuf al-Asal, a former Anbar police chief and commander of one of the tribal militias in Anbar. “Instead they carry out the wishes of parties from outside the province. That is going to take us back to the time before the IS group came, when the province’s fate was determined by those outside it, who did not care about the local people.”
The behaviour of some of the tribal militias is causing untold damage to relationships with the local population too, al-Asal told NIQASH. The things they are doing are making the lives of those Iraqis who returned home after the IS group was driven out, a misery. “Those people dreamed of returning home to a safe and good, dignified life,” al-Asal says. “But procedures being carried out by tribal security forces are placing an undue burden on them.”