The October 2008 issue of Conflict, Security & Development has an article by David Ucko, program coordinator and research fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, on the U.S.’s failure to integrate Iraq’s armed groups after the invasion. The piece details how the Americans lacked a plan to deal with either the anti-Saddam exile groups or the former regime elements. Ucko argues that this led the U.S. to empower the exile groups who then took over Iraq’s fledging security forces and government, while at the same time excluding the Sunnis, which helped create the insurgency. Together, these actions led to the disintegration of the country into the sectarian war of 2006-2007, and continue to cause problems for peace in the country today.
As soon as the invasion ended in 2003, the United States needed to come up with a plan to demobilize and integrate the various armed groups inside and out of the country into the new political system. This policy had to be applied to both the Kurds and Shiites, who made up the anti-Saddam exile groups, and the former Baathists and security forces of Saddam Hussein. The situation was especially difficult for a number of reasons. First, the Americans were beginning from scratch, building the new Iraqi government from the ground up. Second, many in the White House did not care about nation building. Third, the United States knew next to nothing about Iraq’s internal politics. Fourth, the looting and lack of security after the war gave little incentive for the militias to disarm. Finally, none of the U.S. officials in Iraq took integrating the militias or negotiating with the insurgency seriously. Together these led to a series of missteps that only increased the violence and instability within Iraq.
Problems with the U.S. policy towards the militias began in earnest when Paul Bremer took charge in Iraq. The Pentagon first turned to Retired Jay Garner and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) to run post-war Iraq. The ORHA came up with a plan to demobilize the militias by integrating some into the new security forces, offering pensions to others, and vocational training for civilian jobs to the rest. The ORHA set aside $70 million for the project. The problem was Garner was never able to do much as Paul Bremer and the Provisional Coalition Authority (CPA) quickly replaced him in April 2003.
Bremer did away with all of Garner’s policies, and neither had a plan for the militias, nor cared about them at first, which allowed them free reign in sections of the country. Walter Slocombe, who was in charge of national security within the CPA from May to November 2003, believed that the militias were protection for Iraq’s exile leaders until a new political order was created. The CPA was also sympathetic to the militia leaders because they had opposed Saddam, and the Kurds and their Peshmerga fighters had assisted in the invasion. Also, because the U.S. and Coalition didn’t have enough troops to secure the entire country, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masooud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the north, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) in the south began filling the security vacuum with their militias, and became the de facto sovereigns in many areas. The growing influence of the SIIC, also led Moqtada al-Sadr to create the Mahdi Army. The two were long-time rivals, which often led to violence between them. Early on then, the U.S.’s attempts to build a new and secure Iraq were being undermined by the lack of a policy to deal with the militias who were asserting their own control over regions.
On the other hand, Bremer and some in the administration believed that the former regime elements needed to be punished rather than integrated, which helped create the insurgency. Ucko doesn’t mention it, but many U.S. officials, including Bremer, compared Iraq and Saddam to World War II Germany and the Nazis, who had to be wiped clean from the slate to start a new order. This led to Bremer’s decision to disband the country’s security forces and start the deBaathification process. The ex-soldiers were not offered pensions or jobs afterwards, while Sunnis felt persecuted under the deBaathification process. Both of these eventually led many Sunnis to join the insurgency. When that took off, the CPA and the White House believed it was all due to Al Qaeda in Iraq and Baathists, ignoring the deep resentment that American policies had created, and ignoring the nationalist element. From 2003-2006 the U.S. lacked intelligence, troop levels, legitimacy and a counterinsurgency approach to deal with the insurgency, leading to purely punitive measures against them. Again, Ucko points out, the U.S. failed to come up with a plan to demobilize and integrate combatants in Iraq that had deadly consequences.
By the end of 2003, Bremer was forced to address the militia issue, but gave it no priority and the effort floundered. In November 2003 Walter Slocombe was replaced by David Gompert, who was told by Bremer to disband the militias. Bremer had come to see the armed groups as a possible threat to Iraq’s state, so Gompert came up with a Transition and Reintegration strategy in May 2004. The plan was almost identical to Garner’s that was scrapped by Bremer in early 2003, calling for integration into the security forces, pensions, and vocational training. Gompert realized the process was going to take years, especially because fighting was increasing across the country, which would make the militia leaders reluctant to disarm. On June 1, 2004 Gompert signed a memorandum of understanding with nine parties, the two Kurdish ones, the SIIC, Iraqi Hezbollah, and Dawa. Sadr and his Mahdi Army were not included. Ucko doesn’t mention it, but the CPA considered Sadr a threat after his April 2004 uprising, which was probably the major reason for his exclusion from the deal. On June 7, the CPA issued Order 91 to demobilize and integrate the militias that had signed the June 1 memorandum. The process was placed under the Iraqi Interior Ministry, and any militias that failed to comply were to be considered outlaws. The problem was neither the CPA nor the interim Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi believed in the process, and little time or money was spent on it. While the militias never fully cooperated, they did take advantage of the opportunity to join the security forces, giving them legitimacy and official cover.
While the CPA talked about dealing with the exile groups and their fighters, but did nothing in practice, they were also empowering them politically. That began with the CPA appointed Iraqi Governing Council that was created on July 13, 2003. Rather than appoint internal Iraqi leaders, the U.S. turned to those they knew, Abdul Aziz al Hakim of the SIIC, Abdel Karim Mahoud al Mohammedawi of Iraqi Hezbollah, Ibrahim al Jaafari and Ezzidin Salim of Dawa, Massoud Barzani of the KDP, and Jalal Talabani of the KDP. Outside of the two Kurdish parties, none of them had any popular support within Iraq, yet four of them would go on to be the rotating Governing Council president. In November 2003, the White House decided to turn the Council into the basis for the Iraqi Interim Government, which took over after the CPA disbanded. This was the beginning of Iraq’s ruling parties that were given power by the United States. They went on to run in the provincial and parliamentary elections in 2005 and solidified their hold on the government. Ministries were broken up between them, and officials appointed based upon patronage rather than competency. Each became a personal fiefdom committed to supporting their party and followers rather than Iraq.
Sunnis continued to be shut out of the process. The exile groups largely saw the Sunnis as responsible for the Saddam regime and continued with the U.S. policy of seeking to punish them. While the interim Iraqi government, and that of Prime Minister Ibarhim al-Jaafari gave lip service to reconciliation with the Sunnis, in practice, nothing was done. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saliah in August 2005 announced an amnesty plan for insurgents. That was scraped by the United States. The Transitional Administrative Law that was to govern Iraq between the end of the CPA and the election of an independent Iraqi government was negotiated between the Shiites and Kurds, while the Sunnis were shut out. The deBaathification Council let Shiites rejoin the government, while keeping Sunnis out. The Sunni boycott of the provincial council elections in the beginning of 2005, entrenched the Shiites and Kurds in power. In the parliamentary elections, Sadr and his militia became part of the government. Sadrists purged their ministries of Sunnis, and used the Health Ministry to kill Sunnis as well. Former Badr Brigade commander Bayan Jabr Solagh from the SIIC became Interior Minister, where he fired hundreds of Sunnis, incorporated militiamen into the police, carried out sectarian attacks on Sunnis. Finally, the constitution written in 2005 was seen as sectarian by Sunnis, who just barely failed to vote it down. The three elections in 2005 and the U.S.’s failed policies to deal with the militias therefore solidified the hold of the exile groups, plus Sadr, as the new rulers of Iraq to the detriment of the Sunnis. The ruling parties had no reason to compromise with the Sunnis, and just as important, had no unified vision of Iraq. This pushed more Sunnis into the hands of the insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proved no better in dealing with the Sunnis. In June 2006 he announced a reconciliation project that included an amnesty for insurgents and reform of the deBaathification process. The United States and the SIIC got rid of both, so the process went nowhere. Maliki also relied upon the backing of the SIIC, the Kurds, and also Sadr at first, to stay in power, making him directly connected to the militia parties. Iraq’s parliament passed several reconciliation laws in late 2007 and early 2008, but there are questions about their implementation, and they have not consoled the Sunnis yet.
Finally, the U.S. began changing its anti-insurgent policies at the end of 2006, which eventually came to fruition with the 2007 Surge. American commanders were able to create local cease-fires with reconcilable insurgents across western and central Iraq. For the first time, the U.S. moved away from their purely punitive policies against the Sunnis. The same policy was used with Sadr. The Americans tried to work with the moderates, while going after the irreconcilable elements, who were dubbed the Special Groups.
The problem was, all of these reconciliation efforts were local and made on an ad hoc basis by individual American commanders. The Iraqi government was not involved in any of them, except in Anbar. Reintegration plans are supposed to be conducted by the government, not by a third country. This gave the ruling parties no incentive to reach out to the former insurgents or Sadr. Not only do they still consider the Sunnis and Sadr as threats to their control of the government, but also to their influence over the security forces. Because of this, Ucko believes the cease-fires will fall apart in the long run because they are not supported by Baghdad. He argues that bottom up reconciliation can only go so far, if those at the top don’t want it.
Finally, Ucko believes that the failure of the Americans to deal with the militias has created a deeply flawed Iraqi society. The U.S. came to rely upon the exile groups and their armed men to help secure the country, while at the same time only sought to punish the Sunnis until the Surge in 2007. Ucko believes that the U.S. would’ve been better off if they allowed new Iraqi leaders from within the country to emerge to run the government, instead of relying upon the militia parties. It was easier for the U.S. to turn to them first, but it has proven to be a major problem in the long run. This would’ve delayed the handover of power however, and probably led to more violence. He also thinks the lack of knowledge about Iraq by the White House and CPA led to these bad decisions.
One possible route for change is the provincial and parliamentarian elections scheduled for 2009. This could allow more representation by the Sunnis and change the power dynamic within the government. At the same time, the ruling parties could also work to destroy or undermine these new groups so they can stay in power. That would leave the U.S. in the middle to try to either mediate or squash any potential violence that might emerge from these struggles.
McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08
Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, Penguin Press, 2006
Truth, War & Consequences, “Interview Gen. Jay Garner,” PBS Frontline, 10/9/03
Ucko, David, “Militias, tribes and insurgents: The challenge of political reintegration in Iraq,” Conflict, Security & Development, October 2008