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Why Iraq’s New National Guard Has Nothing Left To Lose

Mustafa Habib
Local opposition to Sunni Muslim extremists in control of parts of Iraq is building – and it’s being formalised with the creation of a new National Guard, with military units enlisting locals to protect…
25.09.2014  |  Baghdad
Volunteers on the streets of Baghdad who have responded to the call to defend Iraq.
Volunteers on the streets of Baghdad who have responded to the call to defend Iraq.

In a well guarded building on the outskirts of Mosul, dozens of locals employed by the local authorities are going about their daily business, working on the administration of the province. They are doing the business of the Ninawa provincial council, not the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State, which currently controls much of the area.

For days now these employees have been doing another, less usual job as well as their daily work of gathering information from the refugees who left the city; the information will be used to provide financial and humanitarian aid.

“We are now also registering the names of volunteers who may want to join the new security forces here,” one of the employees, who had to remain anonymous, tells NIQASH. “To see if they want to join the new National Guard.”

Volunteers for this new force will be trained by former Iraqi army officers, who are already residents of Mosul. One of the new force’s main tasks is to liberate Mosul from the extremist IS group, which has been ruling the city in a barbaric way since they took control of it in early June.

A training centre has been chosen, in an isolated spot between the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil and Mosul.

This is just one of the new Iraqi government’s moves to change the nature of the national armed forces. In late September, the office of the commander-in-chief – a controversial military bureau created by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that allowed him to directly issue commands to the Iraqi army – was closed. Several senior military leaders, considered loyal to al-Maliki, were also forced to retire: Among others, these included the Iraqi Army's deputy chief of staff, Abboud Qanbar and the commander of Iraq’s land forces, Ali Ghaidan.

The idea of creating a National Guard, which effectively allows local people to form their own military units and police their own areas, has become more popular over the past few weeks. The US appears to support it although some are saying it may take Iraq further toward division along sectarian lines. Then again, it’s hard to know how else to combat a group like the IS which has exploited sectarian divisions that already exist, and which became stronger during the regime led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to consolidate power in the country.

The people in the Sunni Muslim-majority provinces involved had already been complaining of their treatment at the hands of the Iraqi army, which had become dominated by Shiite Muslim interests. The Iraqi army also withdrew from these areas as the IS group approached without putting up any kind of a fight.

The new Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, has expressed his support for such a project, saying publicly that stability and security alongside national reconciliation are all important.

And there are certainly some positive things that can be achieved by a new National Guard like this. The army could no longer be accused of being sectarian. The actions of illegal Sunni and Shiite militias would have to cease. And there would be a strong base established for ground forces to combat extremists, with the help of aerial bombardment provided by a number of Iraq’s European allies and the US.

What is happening in Ninawa now is also going on elsewhere in Iraq. In the Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where the area is controlled by the IS group or their allies among the local Sunni Muslim tribes, council employees have almost finished the job. Around 10,000 locals have apparently signed up to become members of the new National Guard.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the plan for a National Guard advanced significantly in Anbar, when “the Anbar Provincial Council, the legislature that governs the Sunni-majority province, approved plans to include Sunni tribal fighters in the force”.

In the Salahaddin province, where the IS group controls the provincial capital of Tikrit, conditions are apparently not yet right to form a new National Guard-style force. And in Diyala province, the situation is too confused for such a move as there are thousands of Shiite Muslim militia in both Sunni Muslim-majority and Shiite Muslim-majority areas.

In the Sunni Muslim-majority provinces, you won’t often hear any of the locals praising the Iraqi army. Nearly everyone is ready to accuse the army of sectarianism; they say most of the soldiers and officers stationed in their provinces are actually from Iraq’s south and most of them are Shiite Muslim.

“The people in these areas hate us and accuse us of sectarianism all the time,” a colonel in the Iraqi army, Aziz al-Rubaie, told NIQASH; he has served in Anbar, Babel and in the Mosul area. “They say that we are just Iranian militias [Iraq’s neighbour is a Shiite Muslim-led theocracy]. This makes everything difficult for us. How can we fight the IS group in these areas when the people inside them hate us?”

Al-Rubaie thought a new National Guard composed of locals was a good idea. “Nobody could accuse these forces of sectarianism because their members will be people of the province and they’ll be the ones to chase the extremists out,” he argued. “If the new forces need our assistance we will provide it – but without being hated by the people because it will be their sons who asked us for assistance,” he reasons.

The new National Guard will be paid and armed by the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad, explains Faleh al-Issawi, a senior member of Anbar’s provincial council. But they will take orders from the provincial authorities and their tasks will be limited to the borders of the province.

“Anbar has just about completed the preparation of these forces,” al-Issawi told NIQASH. “Up until now, there have been around 10,000 locals recruited, all from within Anbar. However they don’t have any weapons as yet. But US officials have promised us help with this very soon,” he notes.

Apparently there have also been confidential agreements made between Prime Minister al-Abadi and officials in the Sunni Muslim-majority provinces. These included an agreement that the selection of members of the new National Guard wouldn’t be subject to de-Baathification – that is, it would no longer matter whether the members had been part of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and military or not. Even those who had formerly been part of Hussein’s army would be allowed to join the new National Guard.

There are thousands of army officers like this living in the Sunni Muslim-majority provinces. Many of these officers have battle experience as well as training from Europe and Russia. After 2003, almost all of them were forced out of the army. Now, say local politicians, it is their turn to protect their own provinces from extremists.

The other part of the plan to form a new National Guard involves getting weapons out of the hands of illegal militias and back under state control. This means allowing the various Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim militias, that are allegedly illegal but which tend to operate with impunity, to join the National Guard too – so that they start taking orders and salaries from the national government, rather than individual leaders.

There are at least five large Shiite Muslim militias currently operating in Iraq. This includes the League of the Righteous, the Saraya al-Salam brigades which are associated with the Sadrist movement, Hezbollah in Iraq and the Badr brigades as well as the less formal militias that formed after Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric called for locals to defend the country. The latter is most likely the biggest but also the least well trained and consists mostly of unemployed locals.

There are also estimated to be six major Sunni Muslim militias operating in Iraq. These include the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia militia - also known as the Naqshbandi Army or JRTN, basically the military wing of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, the Mujahideen Army and Ansar al-Sunna. The biggest group is the General Military Council, which includes many of the tribal groups who rebelled against the Shiite Muslim-led government headed by Nouri al-Maliki.

The ultimate goal of Iraq’s new National Guard is to unite these militias in a regular force to defeat the IS extremist group. The best possible scenario, which is what Baghdad and their Sunni Muslim allies, are hoping for would go as follows: The National Guard liberate their own areas with their own ground troops. The Iraqi army provides assistance and the US and Europeans provide air cover.

Of course, there are plenty of critics of this plan too. There are – potentially well grounded – fears that the provincial units become too strong and start attacking other provinces, causing Iraq to disintegrate along sectarian lines even further. However most politicians remain optimistic currently – after all, the way they see it, they’ve tried everything else in the battle to defeat the extremist IS group. Right now, there is nothing to lose.