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Friend Or Foe:
Iraqi Kurdish Vote To Keep Arab Enemies Close?

Histyar Qader
Last week Iraqi Kurdish MPs voted for making Iraq’s Shiite Muslim volunteer militias into an official body. The move has driven a wedge between them and their Sunni Muslim allies.
1.12.2016  |  Erbil
New laws: Members of a Christian militia group, the Ninawa Plain Forces.
New laws: Members of a Christian militia group, the Ninawa Plain Forces.

Last week Iraq’s MPs passed legislation that makes the country’s Shiite Muslim volunteer militias an official government entity, able to operate alongside the Iraqi military in an official capacity. The legislation details the set-up of a special commission to manage the militias and guarantees the fighters in the militias salaries and pensions.

The decision is controversial. It legitimizes the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, most of which were formed two years ago to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The new law means they will not be disbanded after the extremist group is driven out of the country. The volunteer militias have been instrumental in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group but they have also been criticized for acting outside of the law.

Of the Iraqi MPs in Parliament to vote for the legislation were 62 Iraqi Kurdish MPs. The largest Sunni Muslim bloc boycotted the session and in fact, the Kurdish presence was the reason that Parliament was able to reach a quorum – the minimum number of MPs who have to be there to pass a law.

If the Iraqi Kurdish can take part in these newly formed forces, then they will be able to have a say in what goes on, or so the argument goes. 

The Iraqi Kurdish MPs come from both of Iraqi Kurdistan’s major parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. However many of the KDP politicians voted against the law, while the PUK members were for it.

The Kurdish vote split along broadly traditional lines, with the KDP being closer to Sunni Muslim politicians in Iraq and the Turkish and the PUK, being closer to Iran. Sunni Muslims were opposed to the law while Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, heavily supports some of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias.

However, as is often the case with Iraqi Kurdish politicians in Baghdad, the support of the PUK members did not come for free.

One of the clauses in the new law will also allow Iraqi Kurdish volunteers to participate in the now-official ex-volunteer forces in Iraq’s so called disputed areas. These are the parts of the country that the Iraqi Kurdish say belong to their own semi-autonomous region but which Baghdad says belong to Iraq proper. The Iraqi Kurdish military will hope to have an impact on the volunteer militias in places like Kirkuk, Diyala, around Mosul and in the province of Salahaddin.

When the security crisis began in Iraq, thousands of Iraqi Kurdish fighters volunteered to protect Kurdish populations in the disputed areas. They never became an official part of the Iraqi Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, but often took orders from them and were supported by them. If the Iraqi Kurdish volunteers can become part of this new force, it would mean that the Iraqi government pays their salaries and arms them.  

“The Kurdish people have sent many men to fight in the disputed areas and we have seen many victims in the fight against the IS group,” says Bakhtiar Shawis, an Iraqi Kurdish MP belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, political party. “So, we can participate in this way.”

Besides talking about the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, the law will also mentions other volunteers and the idea of the National Guard, a body that was proposed a long time ago to assuage the fears of the country’s Sunni Muslims that all of the armed forces would be Shiite-dominated. The original national guard plan would have seen fighting units formed in each province, consisting of mostly men from that area. 

These mentions were made to gain the approval of other sectors in Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led Parliament, such as the Kurds and the Sunni Muslims. Whether they mean anything to anyone will only become clear when Iraqi ministers begin to elaborate on the law and work out how it will be implemented.

The Shiite Muslim volunteers pose a danger to the Iraqi Kurdish military, says Mohammed Othman, another MP from the PUK, who represents Kirkuk. Problems between the various armed forces have already come up in disputed areas, in places like Tuz Khurmatu and they have resulted in violence and even deaths.

“It was better for us not to stand against the law,” Othman told NIQASH. “Then we could share in these forces. Arabs and Turkmen have their military groups in the disputed areas and that will create problems for us if tensions arise.”

If the Iraqi Kurdish can take part in these newly formed forces, then they will be able to have a say in what goes on, Othman argues.

Of course, not all the Iraqi Kurdish politicians like this idea.

Mullah Hassan Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurdish politician on the Salahaddin provincial council, is opposed because he thinks it legitimises the volunteer militias. “We have our own troops,” he told NIQASH.

And as another Iraqi Kurdish politician, Beeston Adel, a member of Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, said, the Iraqi Kurdish military should only be involved if they can take a leadership role.

Two issues need to be resolved before the Iraqi Kurdish military participate in this new force, says local analyst, Nimah al-Abadi, of the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad. There need to be more details about the make-up of these new forces and whether they will be representative of all the sectors of Iraqi society, and if so, then in which percentages. For example, can the law apply equally to the Sunni Muslim, Christian and Kurdish volunteers, among others? Additionally, it needs to be decided whether the current version of the volunteer militias will be allowed into the disputed areas.

“Having the Kurdish participate is positive in that the Kurds form a fairly uniform block of fighting men,” al-Abadi says. “But it won’t be easy for the Kurdish leadership to send armed Kurds into areas like Anbar and Karbala.” Both of those areas are populated mostly by either Sunni Muslim Arabs, or Shiite Muslim Arabs.

Things could also get a lot messier, al-Abadi cautions. Many Sunni Muslims in Iraq are opposed to the new legislation; they see it as legitimizing a somewhat lawless group, that has been supported by neighbouring theocracy, Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation.

“The Kurds and the Arabs share the disputed areas,” al-Abadi points out. “If the Kurds participate in the new force, while the Sunnis are opposed to it, this could also create more tensions.”