Commentary Magazine


Assessing Shi’ite Militias in Iraq

The rise of the Shi‘ite militias has complicated if not undercut American policy from the 2003 occupation of Iraq to the present. Shortly before U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, then-National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and State Department official Ryan Crocker (both future ambassadors to Iraq) met with Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif (now foreign minister) in Geneva. Zarif promised non-interference: there would be no direct Iranian intervention, nor would Iran allow the militias which its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained to interfere.

Zarif, of course, either lied or was powerless to prevent the IRGC from acting autonomously (it is ironic, therefore, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are so willing to trust Zarif despite his previous refusal to uphold diplomatic agreements). Even Iranian journalists remarked about how quickly the IRGC inserted itself and militias like the Badr Corps into Iraq. Meanwhile, for all the chatter about why Washington policymakers erred by working with Iraqi politicians who had spent some time in exile, the most powerful insider, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sought power by leveraging a militia equally anti-American, violent toward other Iraqis, and engaged in criminal enterprise.

During the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces just as often found themselves in conflict with Shi‘ite militias as with Sunni insurgents. Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods Force operative who worked as Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, oversaw the smuggling into Iraq of explosively-formed projectiles used to kill hundreds of Americans. Then, in 2007, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-sponsored militia, kidnaped five American soldiers, and then tortured and executed them. They and Kata’ib Hezbollah still undermine rule-of-law and government authority in Iraq.

In the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)and the collapse of several units of the Iraqi army, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for volunteers to help defend Iraqi Shi‘ites (and non-Shi’ite Iraqis) and protect both the shrine cities and the capital from ISIS’ advance. The resulting Popular Mobilization Forces (alHashd al-Shaabi) are often treated almost cartoonishly among many Western commentators. They describe them as uniformly Shi‘ite (they are not, even if Shi’ites make up the vast majority) and Iranian proxies (certainly, Iranian officials would like to co-opt them and perhaps do some but most are at heart Iraqi nationalists). Contrary to some reports, there was no widespread abuse, looting, or burning of homes in Tikrit when the volunteers defeated ISIS.

At any rate, if the goal is to fight and defeat ISIS and if Iraqis cannot rely on outside powers to help with any consistency, then they would be foolish to sit around and wait to conduct full military training, nor do many ordinary Iraqis have any wish to make a three-year commitment to the Iraqi army. The training program announced by President Obama for Syrians to fight ISIS has gone nowhere, but perhaps that was the point, and so the Hashd has become an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Does that mean the United States, Iraqis, or others should be sanguine about the Hashd? No. They are a short-term solution which will pose a long-term threat to Iraq, as many will expect a reward or patronage position for their service.

Norman Cigar, perhaps the most skilled and precise linguist and military analyst of the Middle East (whose work I have previously cited here) is out with a new publication through the United States Army War College Press entitled “Iraqi Shi’a Warlords and Their Militias,” which is a free .pdf here. It’s probably the most complete, nuanced, and realistic take to date on both the various militias and the issues raised by their existence, especially in the post-ISIS order. He addresses key questions such as how the militias are mobilized, and the breakdown between those used to fight versus those deemed unfit and perhaps instead relegated to guard duty. He breaks down the numbers in each militia and, for all the talk about leveraging tribes, he discusses how various tribes delivered volunteers for the militias. He also addresses training, equipping, maintaining, and feeding the militias, the logistical elements seldom discussed.

Looking to the future, Cigar is realistic. Iraqis will continue to embrace the militias unless there is a significant foreign military force that can supplant them to counter the Islamic State challenge. Americans like to condemn the militias, but at the same time there is no appetite in the White House or Congress for a significant military deployment back into Iraq. That means the militias are here to stay. The Kurds provide no substitute. Not only is Cigar realistic about the capabilities of the Peshmerga, but he also recognizes the political limitations given Kurdish disunity and disinterest in combatting ISIS in territories in which the Kurds have no interest. Then the question turns into how the militia reality might impact future organization. Will, he ponders, the militias be folded into an organization much like Iran’s Basij? Indeed, for better or worse, this might be the model that most Iraqis are familiar. And if, alternately, there is demobilization, how will that occur?

A decade ago, no one foresaw the rise of the Islamic State or, conversely, of the Hashd. And while the Islamic State needn’t be a fact-of-life if the United States and regional powers were serious about defeating it, the Hashd are now here to stay. Simply condemning them all as Iranian agents is neither accurate nor productive. Rather, it’s time to confront the new reality and craft policies to accommodate or perhaps alter it. Either way, Cigar’s monograph is unique, essential, and a great place to start.

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