With Shi’ite militia victory over Islamic State in Tikrit, Iraq still loses

March 30, 2015
Iraqi security forces cover their ears as a rocket is launched during clashes with Islamic State militants at a frontline in Tikrit

Iraqi security forces cover their ears as a rocket is launched during clashes with Islamic State militants at a frontline in Tikrit, March 28, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Here is a new Iraqi paradox: whatever progress the Shi’ite Muslim-dominated Baghdad government makes against jihadi insurgents occupying large swathes of north-western Iraq, it is simultaneously undermining what is left of the Iraqi state, whose frailty and malfunctions created the environment in which jihadism was able to surge in the first place.

The dereliction of the Iraqi state was already powerfully illustrated by the takeover of one-third of Iraq, including the city of Mosul, by Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) in June 2014. Security forces proved rotten to the core despite a decade of training and expansion. Local Sunni Arab elites were revealed to have turned their backs on their constituencies in favor of a corrupt, corrosive relationship with authorities in Baghdad. Power struggles in the capital often deteriorated into sectarian fear-mongering.

Since June, matters have got worse, particularly in the current battle for the Sunni-populated town of Tikrit, where much of the fighting is by Shi’ite militias under the guidance of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders. Though Iraqi elites and foreign officials alike have signaled they understand the gravity of such shortcomings, they have done little beyond professing intent to shore up the military, re-empower Sunni Arabs through local governance and provision of security and launch an inclusive political process in the capital.

At the same time, the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has been all but sidelined by the massive expansion, multiplication and professionalization of so-called “popular mobilization” groups (Hashid al-Shaabi) – in effect Shi’ite militias – that enjoy considerable support in some segments of society and have taken the lead in the single-minded pursuit of defeating Islamic State by military means.

A Picture and Its Story: 'The Road to Tikrit'

Armored vehicles of Iraqi security forces with militias known as Hashid Shaabi are driven past smoke arising from a clash with Islamic State militants in the town of al-Alam, March 10, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

This decentralized fight has reduced the army to playing a bit role at best, which in turn has reduced the role of the prime minister, its commander in chief. In the vacuum, these militias operate beyond the control of the state, erode its credibility and cannibalize its resources. Their victories — in Tikrit and elsewhere — most likely will further entrench and normalize their role at the state’s expense, which would mark a decisive turn away from the state-building process meant to be ushered in by the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Abadi professes a reform agenda, but he has not been empowered to deliver on it. On one side, he derives little power from control over national security institutions that have been thoroughly discredited; the interior and national security ministries, in particular, are in the hands of political rivals and essentially serve as the militias’ logistical backbone. On the other, he faces open resistance in parliament, especially from Iran-backed hardline Shi’ite factions, to efforts to reach out to Sunni Arabs and return them to politics.

The risk is that, as the balance of forces tilts further to the militias’ advantage, they will have the power to decide what happens during and after military operations. There have been troubling signs that, calls for restraint notwithstanding, they have engaged in the same brutal, sectarian-based practices as their Islamic State adversaries, including summary executions and population displacement in mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas.

Moreover, there is danger the aftermath of battle might include reprisals against local elements under the banner of transitional justice, targeting anyone thought to be associated with Islamic State, reminiscent of de-Baathification after 2003. Without local institutions or acknowledged leaders to govern Sunni Arab areas, militias could end up having to promote local proxies lacking legitimacy. This would be especially damaging for the process of appointing and recruiting local police.

The military campaign is thus exacerbating the sense of powerlessness, disenfranchisement and humiliation among Sunni Arabs that gave rise to Islamic State.

The growing tendency in Baghdad and the south to equate Shi’ite militias with the national army, to declare oneself a patriot while expressing gratitude to Iran for its intervention, and to subsume national symbols under Shi’ite ones — with black, yellow and green flags referring to Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Taleb, Shiism’s third Imam, increasingly crowding out the Iraqi flag — is reshaping Iraqis’ national identity in ways that will vastly complicate well-intentioned efforts to advance inclusive politics and governance.

A Picture and Its Story: 'The Road to Tikrit'

Shi’ite fighters launch a rocket during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of al-Alam, March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The relationship between Iraq and Iran is also undergoing rapid transformation. Not long ago, Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers commanding Iraqi fighters bearing Hussein flags as they march on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit would have been unimaginable in both countries; today it is highly publicized reality. Iranian jets have bombed Iraqi territory with Baghdad’s approval, and portraits of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can now be seen in the Iraqi capital. In the traumatically confused context of modern Iraq, the surrender of national sovereignty is fast becoming the new normal.

Militias are presenting themselves as the sole, viable alternative to a failing state. Baghdad is moving to relabel them as the National Guard, a gendarmerie-like entity that is being established by law to replace the army as the primary internal security force. But they will continue to function as a refuge and incubator for a nihilistic generation of young Iraqis devoid of other prospects, exposed to extreme forms of violence and imbued with a deeply sectarian narrative — the mirror image of the Sunni youths streaming into Islamic State.

Under Iran’s guidance, the militias are fighting Islamic State in ways that undercut U.S. objectives and influence, entrench divisions within Iraqi society and give short shrift to any ambition of recreating an inclusive Iraqi state. This is short-sighted. The collapse of what is left of the Iraqi state would guarantee chronic instability for many years. Neither Iran nor the United States has a long-term interest in that scenario, but neither is behaving as if it fully appreciates how plausible it has become.

For a genuine victory over Islamic State, Abadi needs to receive the kind of political support and prodding from both the United States and Iran that would allow him to assert state authority in areas wrested from Islamic State. He should monitor the re-establishment of local police, which, following any Islamic State defeat, risks falling under the militias’ sway.

Politically, Abadi should reach out to the local Sunni Arab leadership in its entirety. In turn, this leadership should deal with the Baghdad government as its primary interlocutor, rather than forging self-serving, conflicting alliances with the militias – Shi’ite or Kurd – that claim to have liberated them. Abadi should steer humanitarian aid to Tikrit and other areas freed of Islamic State control, rebuild administrative infrastructure and reestablish electricity, water and other basic services.

Abadi should also seek the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount leader of the Shi’ite world, and who lives in Iraq. This way he could mobilize elements — especially within the Shi’ite political scene — that hew to a more nationalistic view and that, even as they partner with Iran, favor Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Short of such an approach, a hollowed-out Iraqi state might regain the territories that fell under Islamic State hegemony nine months ago but lose them yet again – this time to the militias.

18 comments

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The article seems to hit all the relevant points as to why an ‘inclusive’ government is being undermined. Yet, they do not interpret these points as evidence that Iraq is a concept created by Westerners, not the local populace. As a Westerner, I believe they should create their own social organizations. And in fact, we are witnessing just that. The humanitarian thing to do is get out of the way and not prolong the inevitable.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

Sounds like they need a strong leader in that country who is willing to control the terror factions and head-choppers with an iron fist. Oh wait. They had that guy. Then GW Bush spent 2 trillion taxpayer dollars to remove him and give ISIS a new home. :)

Hey Republicans. Told you so.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Iraq is what Republican foreign policy looks like. It’s really that simple. You want more Iraq boondoggles around the world (at 2 trillion taxpayers dollars and 4,000 U.S. service lives a piece)… vote republican. If you don’t want that, don’t vote republican. It’s not rocket science.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Excellent analysis. One of the best I’ve read. The West has been screwing this up since the 1920’s with the mandates drawn up by the Brits and French. (Mostly Winnie Churchill). They tried to install THEIR governments with failure. Then the neo-cons added gasoline to the fire. We had a strong man who brooked no interference in Iraq and held the Iranians at bay. We had a man in Syria who protected the Christians. But no, we had to mess around. Sure they were strong men who killed many innocents. How is this different that the history of the last 4000 years? It’s not. But at least there was stability in the Middle East AND North Africa. There is none now and in much of Africa. And we are “the shining city upon the hill?” I think not.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

The birth of ISIS has resulted in the IRAQ government getting billions in military, C.I.A funding and other aid from the USA.
The USA supplied ISIS with arms. No one wants to see ISIS die. It is a
money maker like Apple computers or Starbucks. Afghan recently added
50,000 MORE TROOPS PAID FOR BY USA TAXPAYERS BECAUSE OF ISIS.

Posted by billieshears | Report as abusive

Shock and Awe.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@AlkalineState — Strange…I didn’t know that Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were Republicans. Blaming one person or one political party for the situation in Iraq is so…2000’s.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

Randy549 explains: “Blaming one person or one political party for the situation in Iraq is so…2000′s.”

Well… too bad. Hillary and Kerry were not forging yellow cake purchase documents from Niger, to trump up a case for war. But maybe…. those documents presented to Congress by the Bush administration…. forged themselves. And Bush and Cheney are not to blame for 4,000 young Americans getting killed for the Iraq boondoggle. Keep dreaming and your group hug will come true :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

http://content.time.com/time/world/artic le/0,8599,463779,00.html

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Democracy, America’s greatest export, coming to a neighborhood near you soon. Better hide your women and children quick.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Obama is squarely responsible for the present crisis in Iraq. Obama hastily withdrew American troops from Iraq for cheap popularity, knowing full well there was a dysfunctional government in Baghdad. It took ten years for postwar settlement in Japan and four years in Germany. Truman initiated postwar settlement and that was followed up by successive presidents. But Obama is not a statesman or an administrator like Truman and Eisenhower, but a mere demagogue. He ought to have divided Iraq among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds before withdrawing troops. The British partitioned India and created Pakistan to avoid future clashes between Muslims and Hindus. Oaama’s impotency led to the rise of ISIS. Iran was defeated by Iraq during Saddam’s time in the Iran-Iraq War. Now Obama has given Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. The entire Middle East is in total turmoil because of the foolish handling of political affairs by Obama. A ragtag ISIS is now occupying large swathes in Iraq, Syria, Libya, now Yemen.It could have been nipped in the bud by ordering boots on the ground. Now ISIS terrorists are owning oil fields, sophisticated American arms, tanks, armored vehicles and SUVs given to Iraq and Syria. Obama is responsible for the escalation of Islamic caliphate. Or is he abetting ISIS?

Posted by AYeshuratnam | Report as abusive

Bush and Cheney lied America into war. Cheney likely orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to provide an excuse to get the wars going in the Middle East. The smoking gun is the collapse of Building 7.

Posted by mtracy9 | Report as abusive

“Obama hastily withdrew American troops from Iraq”

Yes, the longest most expensive war in American history (arguably one of our biggest military failures of all time)….. should have gone on longer. That’s what we needed. Not 10 years of failure. 20 years of failure. Well go sign up. And take another bong rip.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I hope the citizens of the U.S.A. remember this catastrophe come Nov. 2016. Thank you “W” (your father was heads over you in the intelligence. “W” was probably at the end of the line when they handed out the “smarts.” Rummy, Cheney, Bolton, and the rest of the neo-cons in the Defense Department are up for nominations of the “Evil Genius” award. Rotten as humans to the core for allowing this condition.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

I hope the citizens of the U.S.A. remember this catastrophe come Nov. 2016. Thank you “W” (your father was heads over you in the intelligence. “W” was probably at the end of the line when they handed out the “smarts.” Rummy, Cheney, Bolton, and the rest of the neo-cons in the Defense Department are up for nominations of the “Evil Genius” award. Rotten as humans to the core for allowing this condition.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

The colonial idea to create nation states was ment to dissmantle the Caliphate. The Caliphate had destroyd the Mediterranean civilization and thrown Europe into medievial darkness through constant warfare against Europe. The question today is – what should replace the colonial map ?

Posted by YoshuaSalvia | Report as abusive

The colonial idea to create nation states was to dissmantle the Caliphate. The Caliphate had destroyed the Mediterrenean civilization and thrown Europe into medievial darkness through constant warfare against Europe. The question today is – what should replace the colonial map ?

Posted by YoshuaSalvia | Report as abusive

Find out what the Iranian govt thinks. Then think about a next move.

Posted by seymourfrogs | Report as abusive