Monday, December 8, 2014

Can Iraq’s Militias Be Successfully Integrated Into The Security Forces?

Today the Iraqi government has become dependent upon militias to defend the country against the insurgency. These armed groups might be up to half of Baghdad’s forces. The question is what will happen to these militias after the insurgency is defeated? Can they be integrated into the security forces and whom will their loyalties lie with? Some are connected to political parties and many were created by Iran to either fight the Americans or defend the Assad government against the Syrian rebels. Iraq faced a similar dilemma in 2005 when the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Brigade was recruited into the police commandos who later became the National and then Federal Police. These units singled out Sunnis for mass arrests, ran death squads, and maintained secret prisons. It was only through external pressure and training by the U.S. and its allies, an independent Interior Minister, and a strong Iraqi general that the Federal Police was reformed. Today the situation is the reverse with Iran pushing militias to the fore, and an Interior Minister connected to the armed groups as well making the transformation of these organizations into a national security force all the harder.
Interior Minister Naqib created the 1st police commando units (AP)
The Iraqi police were in chaos after 2003 and the Americans did little to remedy the situation. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the police were largely ignored by the United States. It didn’t give the time or resources to rebuild the force even though they were crucial to restoring law and order in the country. Attacks by both insurgents and militias devastated many police units leading to collapses in several cities in 2004. That led to a push to a militarized police to help fight the anti-government elements. Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib and his uncle General Adnan Thabit went on to create the special police commandos to fulfill that role. The new units were mostly former Sunni soldiers, but included some Shiites and minorities. The commandos, the police, and the Interior Ministry in general were a mess and besieged from all sides. That led the Interior Minister to take matters into his own hands and create ad hoc units like the commandos, which were welcomed by the Americans at the time, because they too needed all the help they could get to restore security to Iraq.

Members of the Wolf Brigade in Baghdad 2007 (IraqSlogger)
 This chaos continued into 2005 and into this void stepped the Shiite militias. In May 2005 a new government took office and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) Bayan Jabr was named Interior Minister. He brought in his party’s Badr Brigade into commando units like the Volcano and Wolf Brigades. These units were accused of mass arrests, running death squads and secret prisons. Twice in 2005 the Wolf Brigade entered Diyala and arrested over 1,000 people all of which were Sunnis. By the summer, the first stories emerged of secret detention facilities being run within the Interior Ministry. (1) In July the 759th U.S. Military Police Battalion found 170 prisoners at one such prison at the Ministry in Baghdad. The next month the Volcano Brigade took away 36 Sunnis from their homes in Baghdad, tortured, killed them, and dumped their bodies near the Iranian border. A warrant was issued for the commander of the brigade, but it was never followed through with. In November, the U.S. discovered another secret prison in the basement of the Interior Ministry’s operations center in Jadriya, Baghdad. Former Interior Minister Naqib told the New York Times that the Special Interrogations Unit ran the facility and that it was under the direct command of Minister Jabr. There were 8-10 other such secret facilities in Baghdad, which were run by the Deputy Director of the Interior Ministry’s intelligence directorate Bashir Nasir al-Wandi who was a Badr member. In Jadriya there were 173 prisoners, many of which had been tortured. A U.S. army adviser to the Wolf Brigade stated that the unit acted fine when the Americans were around, but when they weren’t it would kidnap and kill Sunnis and burn their homes. In fact, the Brigade once led U.S. advisers into an ambush. In September 2006 an inspection of the Site 4 prison in eastern Baghdad found that the Wolf Brigade was torturing many of the 1,400 prisoners there. The commanding General Mahid al-Gharawi was charged with abuse afterward, but the case against him fell apart when witnesses recanted their testimony. Two months later a National Police unit raided the Higher Education Ministry and took away 159 people. The incident was considered a sectarian attack, as the commandos had become the National Police and the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni party in the government, ran the ministry. Finally, in March 2007 the National Police blocked off an area of eastern Baghdad and kidnapped five British security guards. Both Premiers Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki denied that the commandos or the National Police were involved in sectarian attacks. They claimed that people wearing fake police uniforms were responsible. The actions of the commandos, National Police and the protection they received from the prime ministers were all a reflection of the cooperation between the government and militias to carry out a sectarian war in response to the insurgency. By 2005 the civil war was just taking off, and the ruling Shiite parties decided to fight fire with fire giving the militias free reign both on their own and through the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).

At first, the U.S. leadership was largely unwilling to deal with the militias in the security forces saying it was an Iraqi affair, but by 2006 it started pushing for reforms. In January it started a re-training program for the police to try to stop some of the abuses. It also got the Interior Ministry to mix the commandos created by General Thabit with the Badr ones into the National Police. These moves had no real effect as the leadership within the ministry and National Police was still in tact to give orders to the units to continue on with their operations. In October, the U.S. took stronger action when it disbanded the 8th Brigade of the 2nd National Police Division and arrested its officers for abuses. It was blamed for a raid on a Baghdad factory where it kidnapped 26 Sunni workers and killed seven of them. Later in the year the Americans began another process with the National Police that involved taking each brigade off line to go through three week of training and vetting that included human rights, policing, patrolling, and other skills. It took over a year to finish this reform effort, and this time it was more far reaching. By the end of the year 27,000 National Police had been fired, 17 of 27 battalion commanders and 8 of 9 brigade commanders had been removed. In September 2007 a congressionally mandated commission issued its findings about the ISF known as the Jones report, which advocated disbanding the National Police because of its sectarian nature. The U.S. military rejected this suggestion claiming that the National Police were necessary to help secure the country. At the same time, it acknowledged that the National Police were still carrying out attacks upon Sunnis and needed more work. It therefore launched its third re-training program, this time by the Italian Carabinieri. The training lasted two months and went from December 2007 to 2009. The Americans also created 41 National Police Transition Teams to monitor the Iraqi units. Although it took several years to get it right this outside pressure to deal with the militias in the police was crucial in changing the force. The Shiite parties that led the government were not interested in the matter because it was their fighters who were in the units and they were committed to fighting a sectarian war. The U.S. was one of the only groups within Iraq capable of pushing for re-training the National Police and getting rid of its commanders who were Badr members. The Americans could not do this alone, and needed to find Iraqi partners to accomplish this and they eventually did.
Interior Minister Bolani was essential for clearing out the Badr elements within the National Police (Getty Images)
In May 2006 a new Interior Minister Jawad Bolani was named, which opened the door to changing the National Police. Under the new Maliki administration Jabr was switched to Finance and Bolani became Interior Minister. Bolani was considered an independent giving him some leeway to operate outside of the other Shiite parties who had militias in the ministry. After the 2007 Jones Report came out he ordered an evaluation of the National Police, which found that it was still plagued with problems. That led to a major reform effort that worked congruently to the American one. He investigated 5,000 National Police and fired 2,300 of them by the end of the year. He appointed a new National Police Commander General Hussein al-Awadi who was also committed to change. Awadi got assurances that he could fire anyone without political interference or repercussions. He then recruited new young officers that could carry out his reforms within the National Police, while at the same time forcing out most of the old leadership from command positions. The National Police Brigades also went through their own Iraqi re-training program. They were then partnered with a U.S. unit afterward that provided oversight and more mentoring. The Interior Ministry also recruited more Sunnis into the National Police to try to balance out the force. One result was that the head of the Wolf Brigade was fired, half of the unit was broken up, and Sunnis were brought in. The Americans applied the outside pressure, but if it wasn’t for Bolani at the top of the Interior Ministry and General Awadi commanding the National Police the U.S. could have been ignored. Instead, it found Iraqis who were just as committed as it to cleaning up the militias’ influence within the police. Together the two removed the leadership of the National Police and made it loyal to the government and country rather than ISCI. By breaking that link the National Police really became a national force.

The reforming of the National Police provides important lessons for Iraq today as it is again dealing with a massive militia mobilization and integration within the security forces. The two situations could not be more different however. This time the main outside power is Iran not the Americans, and Tehran has pushed the militias, many of which it helped create, funds and arms, to the front in the fight against the insurgency after the ISF collapsed in Mosul this summer. Even before that when fighting broke out in Anbar in January the militias were active there and many were included within ISF units. That has only increased since then. The Iraqi government has talked about including all of the various independent armed groups in Iraq within a National Guard to try to bring them under the umbrella of the government. The Americans support this idea. That would not break the militia ties to their leadership however just as when Badr joined the Interior Ministry in 2005. In fact, Iran wants to maintain its power and influence within the Iraqi government and ISF through its militia allies and would oppose any effort at trying to carry out any serious reform of government forces. Not only that but the new Interior Minister Mohammed Ghaban is from the Badr organization the leading militia in the country. It was tasked by Iran with heading the Iraqi militias fighting in Syria, and it appears to be doing the same in Iraq. Premier Haider Abadi has welcomed the help of the militias to defend the country now, but there is talk that he is worried about the day after. Unless he finds strong allies that will help him it’s unlikely that he will be able to end the militias’ influence, and their ties to Iran.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraq concedes detainees likely were tortured,” 11/16/05


Allbritton, Christopher, “Why Iraq’s Police Are a Menace,” Time, 5/20/06

CNN, “Death Squads,” 3/25/07

Cordesman, Anthony, “Iraqi Force Development: A Progress Report,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8/23/07

Diamond, Larry, “What Went Wrong in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004

Gangs of Iraq, “Interview Brig. Gen. Karl Horst,” Frontline, 4/17/07

Jones, General James, “The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq,” Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, 9/6/07

Moore, Solomon, “Killings Linked to Shiite Squads in Iraqi Police Force,” Los Angeles Times, 11/29/05

Oppel, Richard, “Iraqi Police Cited in Abuses May Lose Aid,” New York Times, 9/30/06

PBS Frontline, “Interview Robert Perito,” Truth, War and Consequences, 10/9/03

Perito, Robert, “The Iraq Federal Police U.S. Police Building under Fire,” United States Institute of Peace, October 2011

Rathmell, Andrew, "Fixing Iraq's Internal Security Forces: Why is Reform of the Ministry Interior so hard?" Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11/13/07

Rayburn, Joel, Iraq After America, Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2014

San Francisco Chronicle, “Iraq concedes detainees likely were tortured,” 11/16/05

Sherman, Matt and Carstens, Roger, “Cooling the Streets: Institutional Reforms in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior,” Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at The College of William and Mary, 11/14/08

Silverstein, Ken, “The minister of civil war: Bayan Jabr, Paul Bremer, and the rise of the Iraqi death squads,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2006

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Government,” 7/30/07

Tharp, Mike, “More Sunnis joining Iraq’s National Police,” McClatchy Newspapers, 5/29/08

Tyson, Ann Scott, “U.S. Commanders Say Iraqi Police Can Be Reformed,” Washington Post, 12/11/07

Wong, Edward and Burns, John, “Iraqi Rift Grows After Discovery of Prison,” New York Times, 11/17/05

Zavis, Alexandra, “Iraq works to clean up national police,” Los Angeles Times, 2/6/08

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