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Taming The Beast:
Can Iraq Ever Control Its Controversial Volunteer Militias?

Mustafa Habib
As volunteer militias gain power and government-sanctioned independence, locals fear they will soon have their own version of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
4.08.2016  |  Baghdad
An Iraqi fighter from the Shiite militia, the League of the Righteous, stands guard outside the militia's headquarters in Basra. (photo: حيدر محمد علي)
An Iraqi fighter from the Shiite militia, the League of the Righteous, stands guard outside the militia's headquarters in Basra. (photo: حيدر محمد علي)

In the past two weeks, a document issued by the office of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, finally saw the light of day. It confirms that the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, formed specifically to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, group, are now a military force in their own right, separate from other established forces, such as the Iraqi army or police force. The document also said that the volunteer militias should come under the command of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces – that is, the Prime Minister himself.

Despite their official independence, the paper also said that the volunteer militias should follow military laws and that, the same as the army, their members should not participate in politics. The new volunteer militia force would even be getting its own leader and deputy leader.

However, as with so many new laws in Iraq, this directive may turn out to be rather difficult to action.

One of the biggest problems facing the Iraqi government is that while the volunteer militias may all have arisen from the same call to action issued by the country’s leading Shiite Muslim cleric,the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, in mid-2014, they are not at all homogeneous.

The volunteer militias even have their own prisons which the Iraqi government knows almost nothing about.

The different militias can be divided into roughly three different groups, which reflects not just the differences they have among themselves but also long standing conflicts and competitions in the religious and regional-political realm.

One subset is closer to Iran, with many of their military activities supervised by Iranian military leaders such as General Qasim Soleimani. This subset includes about 20 different militias and they tend to be more heavily armed and more powerful, when compared to the other subsets. Prominent among this group are militias such as the Badr organization, the League of the Righteous, Hezbollah in Iraq, the Khorasani Brigades and the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades. Additionally, these are the militias that tend to criticize the Iraqi government, saying they don’t respect orders coming from out of Baghdad. They see Iraq and Syria as one battlefield.

In fact, two days after the decision on the volunteer militias was announced, Abu Ala al-Waeli, the leader of the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades issued an official statement proclaiming his group’s loyalty to the religious authorities in Iran, rather than to the whims of politicians in Baghdad.

Iran’s hand in Iraq’s volunteer militias is also a reflection of that country's ideology about whether religious bodies should interfere in national politics or not. For example, as Najaf cleric Aqeel al-Waeli told NIQASH, Iraq's “Al-Sistani still refuses to call the militias ‘the popular crowd’ as so many others do. He prefers the term ‘volunteers’ for those fighting the IS group [because this implies they will return home after the fighting is over] and he doesn’t like the idea of them becoming an independent military force.”

Meanwhile in Iran, the religious authority there, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a different opinion. That cleric believes in the importance of religion in politics. Iran's infamous and powerful Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution – more commonly known as the Revolutionary Guards - began as a group of ideologically driven militias founded after Iran's revolution in the late 1970s. It was a way of bringing together the different religiously driven militias to form an opposition to the regular, potentially more secular and nationalistic, Iranian army.

Now some locals say that, with this statement from al-Abadi, Iran has achieved what it set out to do when it started aiding Iraq’s volunteer militias – the volunteer militias could become just as powerful as Iran's Revolutionary Guards, they fear.

Militia members associated with the Peace Brigades.

Militia members associated with the Peace Brigades.


The second subset of the volunteer militias are those related more closely to the cleric al-Sistani himself. These factions – which includes the Ali al-Akbar brigades, the Abbasiyah Shrine brigades, the Alawite Shrine brigades and the Husayniyah Shrine brigades – do not apparently have the same political ambitions as the first, which reflects al-Sistani's own philosophy. They say that they are at the disposal of the Iraqi government. Mostly these groups, which are not as well armed and are fewer in number, are helping to keep the Islamic State, or IS, group out of cities they've left. They also refuse to participate in the fighting in Syria.

The third subset involves the volunteer militias associated with existing Shiite Muslim political parties. These include the Peace Brigades associated with the Sadrist movement, the Ashura Brigades and the Supporters of the Faith Brigades, among others. They all tend to have their own party’s agenda at heart.

If the Iraqi government does somehow succeed in turning the volunteer militias into an independent military force, it will be the first time this has happened in the modern history of Iraq. However the Iraqi government’s track record on reining in the militias does not bode well.

In March 2015, both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military were in favour of the participation of the international coalition against the IS group taking part in the fighting in Tikrit. But the volunteer militias were not happy with this plan. A serious conflict arose between Hadi al-Ameri, the commander of the Badr Brigade, and military commander, Abdul Wahab al-Saidi. Al-Abadi was forced to remove al-Saidi from his post; the militias won that battle of wills.

There was a similar contest of wills over fighting for Fallujah and Ramadi and some say this stalled fighting there for months.

In April of 2015, al-Abadi ordered that fighters from the volunteer militias should be subject to the same kinds of punishments that regular Iraqi soldiers are if they break the rules. This was in response to controversial behaviour by the volunteer militias after they managed to push the IS group out of the Tikrit area; militia fighters were accused of taking revenge on the population there by looting, arson, beatings and even executions. However well intentioned, al-Abadi’s order has not been enforced.

The powerful pro-Iranian faction already has political designs: Leaders have stated a desire to change Iraq’s political system.

Then in February this year, al-Abadi appointed Mohsen al-Kaabi, a former commander of the federal police, to replace Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the leader of Hezbollah. The subset of volunteer militias loyal to Iran rejected the appointment and threatened the Iraqi government. A statement they issued pointed out in no uncertain terms that, “the Islamic resistance factions and the popular crowd are ideological jihadist factions that have their own administrative and organizational structures, different than classical structures adopted in the military establishment”.

The volunteer militias all have their own way of running their organisations. The Prime Minister’s statement says that militias should work in the same way as the Iraqi police or army. But at the moment the militias don’t have these kinds of rules. They don’t use military rankings and leadership positions depend on loyalty to the militia, to religious authorities and to militia leaders.

They even have their own prisons or detention centres about which the Iraqi government knows almost nothing. After fighting in Ramadi, in the central province of Anbar, hundreds of people were arrested by the militias. Most of them were fleeing fighting in the Razazah area south of Ramadi. And most likely they are still being held in those private prisons.

“The volunteer militias are not a regular military force and they should be disbanded,” Akram al-Mashhadani, a former Iraqi army officer who currently lives in Jordan, told NIQASH. “Members are not well trained and they should be integrated into the regular army. Their fighting is driven by religious loyalties rather than patriotism.”

“If a new military force is formed in this country, things will become even messier,” al-Mashhadani argued. “These factions do not obey government orders and there are also conflicts among them. Only two months ago these conflicts led to armed fights inside Baghdad, as a result of the demonstrations that were taking place then,” al-Mashhadani said, referring to the protests organised in Baghdad by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Militias affiliated with al-Sadr tend to be more loyal to Iraq and his group clashed with those loyal to Iran.

In common with many analysts of the situation, al-Mashhadani believes the volunteer militias should be integrated into the Iraqi army, not given more independence and power.

Perhaps one of the most significant passages in this official redefinition of the volunteer militias is the decision that members of their volunteer militias shouldn’t be allowed to participate in politics. But once again, it would be almost impossible to enforce this rule. Many of them are already leaders of political parties or groups and some were even MPs or ministers. For example, Hadi al-Ameri used to be the country's Transport Minister. Why would they choose between political and military power if they don’t have to?

The powerful pro-Iranian faction of volunteer militias already has political designs on Iraq. Leaders have stated a desire to change Iraq’s political system in a way which may well favour their political allies.

They also regularly criticize and even threaten the Iraqi Kurdish leaders and military forces. Tensions between the volunteer militias and the Iraqi Kurdish military in northern Iraq have seen deadly fighting erupt between the groups.

And then finally there is also the issue of cross-border battles that some of the volunteer militias are already engaged in, especially in Syria. If the volunteer militias become an independent, military force sanctioned by the Iraqi government, then what does their fighting in a neighbouring country mean for Iraq's foreign relations? If that happens, could this be the first sign that, as they move toward some sort of government-sponsored status, that the volunteer militias are coming dangerously close to acting like Iran's Revolutionary Guards?  

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