Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How The Failure To Deal With Iraq’s Militias Caused The Breakdown Of The Country

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


AndrewSshi said...

I wonder about the prognosis about working with the Sahwa going pear-shaped in the near future. Western Baghdad and Baquba are going to be problems, but a lot of the news seems to indicate that at least in Saladin, there's a pretty decent program of re-integration and amnesty underway that the central government is behind.

Joel Wing said...

I think the amnesty program is just for anyone that walks in. Those with criminal charges still have to go to court, but might get some leniency. It's affected insurgents, but those in the SOI haven't gone in, because they don't think they've done anything wrong so I don't think it would work in those other areas.

It's that hole thing of sovereignty and power. Insurgents walk in and ask for amnesty are going through the government. The SOI are an independent, American security system.

AndrewSshi said...

Good point on the SOI vs. Amnesty. Is there any word on what the situation with the SOI's in Saladin is? Most of what I've seen has talked about western Baghdad and Baquba.

Joel Wing said...

This is everything I have from my notes about the SOI in Salahaddin.

Klein, Joe, “Is al-Qaeda on the Run in Iraq?” Time, 5/23/07
- Sunni tribes in Nineveh and Salahaddin have also asked to form SOIs

Burns, John and Rubin, Alissa, “U.S. Arming Sunnis in Iraq to Battle Old Qaeda Allies,” New York Times, 6/11/07
- 130 sheikhs in Salhaddin formed own group

Roggio, Bill, “1920s Revolution Brigades turns on al Qaeda in Diyala,” Long War Journal.org, 6/12/07
- Anbar Salvation Council sending out units to Salahaddin, Diyala, Babil and Baghdad
to fight Al Qaeda and organize Awakening groups

Dagher, Sam, “Will ‘armloads’ of US cash buy tribal loyalty?” Christian Science Monitor, 11/8/07
- In Tikrit US given $1mil to Salahaddin tribe
- Organized 3000 tribesmen
- Deputy governor of Salahaddin rival of sheikh working with US and tried to have him
arrested in October
- US officers also warned sheikh might be power and money hungry

Zavis, Alexandra, “U.S. courts sheiks in Hussein terrain,” Los Angeles Times, 11/14/07
- US trying to spread Sunni policy to Salahaddin province
- Tribes also saw how successful Anbar Salvation front was
- Anbar easier to organize because one main tribe
- Salahaddin has 30 tribes and not all agree with Sunni policy
- Formed Salahaddin Support Council
- US gave out $5.2 million to tribes, especially around Tikrit
- 2700 Sunnis organized
- Roadside bombs dropped 60% in some areas
- Baghdad has not recognized Salhaddin tribes

Katulis, Brian, Juul, Peter, and Moss, Ian, “Awakening to New Dangers in Iraq,” Center for American Progress, February 2008
10,000 in Ninevah, Salahuddin, Tamim

Rubin, Alissa, "Iraqis Blame U.S. for Deaths of 8 Backing American Effort," New York Times, 2/17/08
- US also killed 6 SOIs and 2 women in Raween, Salahuddin

Ali, Fadhil, “Sunni Rivalries in al-Anbar Province Threaten Iraq’s Security,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/11/08
- March VP Hashemi met with tribal leaders from Salahaddin

Senanayake, Sumedha, “Iraq: Future Of Awakening Councils In Limbo, “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 4/4/08
- 3/22/08 report Awakening in Al Taji in Salahaddin said the U.S. hadn’t paid them
in 2 months and threatened to walk out

Missing Links Blog, “Reconciliation,” 6/27/08
- Newspaper said reporters in Adhamiya, Taji, Tikrit, Baquba, Ramadi and Hilla said that
SOIs have been contacting insurgents and asking to go back to fighting

Cordesman, Anthony, “Iraqi Force Development,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2008
- Salahaddin 54 SOI groups, all Sunni, over 4000 fighters

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 7/30/08
- Northern command (Ninewa, Tamim, Salahaddin) 30,692, March-July 08 up 3,121,
avg. monthly pay $368
- U.S. set up Civil Service Corps and Joint Technical Education and Reintergration
Program to transition SOI
- U.S. set up JTERP facility in Tikri, Salahaddin province

McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08
- Government is cracking down on SOI in Diyala and Salahaddin

AndrewSshi said...


Anonymous said...

Interesting, informative and well researched but, typical of westernocentric think tankers, extremely misguided because its perspective is skewed.

Its premise is that failing to deal with the militias created the insurgency. In fact it was the INSURGENCY that made it extremely difficult for the US and the Iraqi government to deal effectively with the militias.

Once the insurgency had been largely defated, then the Iraqi govt was able to take on the last remaining militia - the mahdhis - and also the pershmerga. And did so with the support of all the major parties in the COR.

Joel Wing said...

1) I think you’re misreading his argument. He’s saying that it was Bremer’s, and the subsequent U.S. and the Iraqi government’s policies of punishing the Sunnis after the invasion rather than looking to reintegrate them that are largely responsible for the insurgency.

2) It was Petraeus that came up with the plan to first bring down insurgent violence so that the influence of the Shiite militias could be lessoned. Is he not a westerner?

3) Since when has the Iraqi government dealt with the peshmerga? The Diyala episode went largely nowhere other than to flex the government’s muscle, but the Kurds still control the Khanaqin district, half of Mosul and 300 miles of northern Iraq outside of Kurdistan.

Anonymous said...

1/ Is part of the westernocentric premise. If you are looking at it from an Iraqi perspective - ie from the point of view of the huge majority of Iraqis who had been persecuted by the Baath - the insurgency was the unsurprising result of the Baath republican guard, Mukhabaret and Fedayeen not having been militarily "defeated" by the US in April 2003.

After the actions of the Baath in 1988 and 1991 the shia and the Kurds were under no illusions about the depths of Baath brutality. That is why they formed militias in the first place.

It is also why they demanded de-Baathification and the disbandoning of the Baath Army (and would have started an insurgency themselves if Bremer had denied them).

After the fall of Saddam the insurgency created and led by the Baath in an alliance with Alqi literally slaughtered tens of thousands of shia - and killed 4000of their Amerian "protectors".

That's why the US and the Iraqi government were unable to deal with militias effectively until after the insurgency had been largely defeated.

But westernocentric thinktankers always put the insurgency down to the US "punishment" of the Sunnis. In fact it is the US, including Bremer, who has been indefatigable in representing minority Sunni interests and preserving their rights in order to get a genuine democracy established.

The westernocentric thinktankers seem to think modern Iraqi history began when Bush invaded Iraq. Well I guess that's when they started to pay attention.

btw Petraeus isn't a "think tanker"!

2/ As Ucko's article says the peshmerga and badr militias agreed to to be incorporated into the infant ISF from June 2004 onwards.
But the militias were hardly going to be brought under government control while ferocious mass attacks on the shia were being made - which did not abate until three years later.

3/ The Iraqi govt's limited action against the peshmerga in Diyala was nevertheless significant in that it happened at all.

Joel Wing said...

I'm not saying there wouldn't be an insurgency, but Gen. Garner's plan was to get the Iraqi army to do reconstruction and security work right after the war. Some of his aides were talking to Iraqi officers that said they could bring back most of their soldiers. Wouldn't that have made the insurgency a lot smaller and easier to contain if the U.S. had an Iraqi army alongside of it? There would be far less recruits.

Also, wasn't much of the army Shiite conscripts?

Not speaking for the Peshmerga, but the Badr Brigade was created by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard with the express purpose of creating an Iraqi force to fight Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war. Right after the invasion they got sent in by the Iranians to carry out a wave of assassinations of Baathists and opponents of Iran.

Badr also started the killing hundreds of Sunnis supported by some of the security forces, followed by the Mahdi, who raised that number to the thousands that led to sectarian cleansing of swaths of Baghdad. Not all of them were Baathists/AQI.

The effort in 2004 by the U.S. and Iraqi government to integrate the militias was halfheated at best. In fact, it had little to no backing, so was a dead end whether the militias wanted to do it or not.

Finally, I agree that Maliki's move in Khanaqin was surprising and an assertion of government authority over areas it should be sovereign. On the other hand, I have no idea whether it actually changed the status quo at all. The Kurds still control Khanaqin and a slice of northern Iraq and Maliki can't stay in power without the Kurds behind him anyway, especially now that he's starting to break with the SIIC.

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