The US attempts at reforming the Iraqi armed forces after the invasion of 2003 reflected a state centric view that emphasized that only Iraq’s national army should maintain the monopoly on the use of armed violence within the nation — informed by Max Weber’s often quoted definition as the state serving as the ultimate claimant to “the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.” Since 2003, observers, critics, and commentators of the US efforts to rebuild the Iraqi military and the actual military trainers and implementers of SSR in Iraq have operated under Weber’s rubric.
While the US sought to create an Iraqi army to serve as the institution that holds the monopoly on the use of legitimate force in Iraq, such an idea has proved elusive ever since 1920 when Iraq emerged as a British mandate, and ever more so since the US invasion of 2003. Rather than a monopoly on armed forces, hybridity and plurality have historically characterized Iraq’s security sector. Indeed, the hybridization of Iraq’s security sector is not exceptional in its history, but rather a pattern that began with formation of the nascent Iraqi state in 1920. Since then, non-state armed actors (NSAAs) formed as an outcome of its state-building process, a response to weak state structures during the Iraqi monarchy and republic. This pattern continued under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian state and after 2003 when the state collapsed. Ultimately, NSAAs either formed in opposition to the state, to protect a distinct community, or to buttress the state when it was weak or under siege — a consequence of unstable centre-periphery relations between the capital and the north and south of Iraq, and the state’s failure to prioritize the protection of all of Iraq’s communities. As a result, the Iraqi state has rarely achieved a true monopoly of violence: even under Saddam Hussein’s tenure, his rule can be more aptly characterized by an oligopoly or hybridity of state violence.
The NSAA in Iraq’s History: 1920 to the present
A historical analysis of Iraq’s security sector reveals hybridity since the formation of the state in 1920, with a rupture that followed after 2003 — rearranging those who gained access to the oligopoly of violence —; and a shock to the system that emerged after the ascent of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Since Iraq’s formation, its security sector has witnessed change and continuity, with foreign forces operating in Iraq and the formation of militias (whether Kurdish forces in the north or Arab tribes in the centre and south), either resisting or seeking to capture the security sector, each representing a devolution and dilution of state power. As a response to this phenomenon, state-sponsored elite praetorian guards to all-encompassing mass-mobilization armies emerged, designed to coup-proof the regime — not in order to dilute, but rather to redistribute state power from a national military unable to put down threats from the NSAAs.
Foreign Forces in Iraq
Foreign forces have invaded and occupied what is today Iraq since the First World War. Foreign advisory missions and air support had been a feature of Iraq’s security sector at two junctions in its history, when the state had to cope with domestic security threats. Foreign forces were seen by Iraq’s government after 1920 and 2003 as a violation of state sovereignty and a dilution of its power. The Iraqi military officially formed in 1921, with air support provided by the Royal Air Force (RAF), to serve as an institution of domestic security, policing the threats posed by tribal uprisings, both Arab and Kurdish during the British mandate. No Status of Forces Agreement was reached in 2011 between the US and Iraq, leading to the withdrawal of all US forces. Yet, as of 2014, the US maintained its advisory mission to the Iraqi military as well as an air force base at al-Asad to provide air cover during combat operations against IS. After 2014, another foreign actor strengthened its role in Iraq: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who provided assistance to Iraq’s militias. The US firm Blackwater was also a foreign force, but local protection forces also emerged amongst the Iraqis in 2003, such as those paid to protect the nation’s hydro-carbons infrastructure or private Kurdish protection companies.
Northern Iraqi Militias
Kurdish militias emerged as early as the 1920s in the north of Iraq, when Shaykh Mahmud Barazani led an uprising amongst the Kurds, which Iraqi forces were only able to temporarily suppress with the aid of the RAF. The Iraqi military never achieved a decisive victory against this revolt thereafter, representing a dilution of state power over the mountainous north. Barazani’s insurgency eventually morphed with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while Jalal Talabani broke ranks with the KDP, forming the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with its own military force. As a result, the north of Iraq has consistently witnessed a hybrid security sector, manifest by Kurdish rebellious forces fighting the Iraqi military and Kurdish tribes allied with Baghdad. The Kurdish opposition forces of the KDP and PUK, collectively referred to as the peshmerga or those ‘who face death’, were integrated into the new Iraqi security apparatus to some extent, becoming the military of the KRG as of 2003, a jurisdiction in which the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) does not deploy. Tensions persisted between the Kurdish military forces and the military of the central government in Baghdad, institutionalizing Iraq’s oligopoly of violence, with problems persisting over contested jurisdictions with the ISF and other urban centres outside of the KRG. These Kurdish militias morphed into the state after 2003, with US approval. The Shi’a militias after the defeat of IS followed the same path by running in elections, which was met with US approbation. At the same time, in the PUK-controlled territory, the peshmerga have worked with Iranian advisers and Iranian artillery units to combat IS.
Minorities found themselves vulnerable during Iraq’s post-2003 state-building process. These Iraqi minorities, particularly in the north, since 2003 have sought to arm themselves, with Yezidis and Christians creating their own militias after the ascent of IS. The Iraqi Yezidis formed their own militia with the help of the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (the YPG, that ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)), and Iraq’s Assyrian Christian militia Dwekh Nawsha has fought alongside Iraqi Shi’a militias against IS.
Armed Groups in the South of Iraq
While the Kurdish groups operated in the north of Iraq, the nation has also had a history of armed groups in the south. Tribal revolts in the 1930s occurred in the areas south of Baghdad, and these areas also witnessed insurrection by armed Shi’a groups in the 1980s and an armed uprising among the Marsh Arabs during the 1990s.
In 1982, the Islamic Republic of Iran sponsored the creation of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to serve as an Iraqi Shi’a umbrella organization. It was conceived of as a means for the Iranian leadership to unite and control Iraqi Shi’a factions, as well as a “government in exile” that would assume control of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s expected demise during Iran’s early military successes in the Iran-Iraq War. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard trained SCIRI’s militia, the Badr Brigade, comprised of dissident Shi’a rebels and Iraqi prisoners-of-war, reaching 15,000 combatants at its height. During the 1991 uprisings, the Badr Brigade, operating from Iran, infiltrated the south of Iraq to support the rebels.An uprising in the marshes continued after 1991, representing diluting state power over this watery terrain, resulting in Saddam Hussein’s decision to drain this natural habitat. After 2003, the Badr Brigade established a presence in Basra and Najaf and infiltrated the national police and other security forces, essentially becoming an arm of the newly emerging state. The Badr Brigade essentially hybridized with the ISF and the police, and took control of the Ministry of Interior, which operates its own para-military units.
The SCIRI penetrated from outside Iraq. However, the most significant militia emerged within Iraq, led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers: the Mahdi Army. Muqtada relied on the legacy, theology, institutions, and representatives left behind after his father’s assassination in 1999. Sadrists were prevalent among the poorer tribes and marsh dwellers of ‘Amara and Nasiriyya and in semi-urbanized areas like Saddam City and the poorer quarters of Basra. In these areas, the Mahdi Army would combat US military forces and sometimes other Shi’a militias. While SCIRI and the Mahdi Army have been lumped under the categories of ‘Shi’a militias’, their demographics differed, with SCIRI forming among Iraqis in exile, opposed to the Mahdi Army, which recruited among the Shi’a urban poor who remained in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Furthermore, these two militias, the first to form amongst Iraq’s Shi’a, were rivals immediately after 2003, as SCIRI was willing to accommodate the U.S. military forceswhile the Mahdi Army emerged to combat them. Such tensions resulted in street battles in Shi’a shrine city of Najaf in 2008, a that rivalry foreshadowed the intra-sectarian rivalry that would persist after the proliferation of Shi’a militias post-2014.
Arab Tribal Networks
Arab tribal networks had their own arsenals at their disposal, representing a dilution of state power during Iraq’s monarchy as the tribes had been able to carve out de-facto fiefdoms in the south by the 1930s. After the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, some members of Iraq’s tribes, rather than resist the military, sought to capture it instead. The Anbar and Ninawa provinces are home to several tribes that had served as the backbone of the Ba’thist state, and Saddam Hussein had cultivated a system of neo-tribalization after the Gulf War to devolve power to the tribes to maintain order in the aftermath of the 1991 twin uprisings. After 2003, it would be tribal elements of the Anbar province that mobilized as Iraqi insurgent groups attacking the US forces, many of which were out of work as a result of the disbanding of the Iraqi army in that year. Yet, these insurgent groups would change sides, abetting the US surge of 2007, in what was known as the Sahwa or Awakening movement. This movement would be essential in combatting the “Islamic State of Iraq” as of that year, the precursor to IS.
Elite Mobilization Praetorians
The hybridization of security sector had been a deliberate strategy in Iraq, where the national army is balanced by a parallel military structure to serve as a counter-coup force. Such parallel structures included elite praetorian guards and mass mobilization militias, representing a redistribution of state power rather than a dilution. The former developed to balance the national army with a parallel military structure, to serve as a counter-coup force amongst renegade army units, as well as to suppress NSAAs. Iraq’s Republican Guard served this function after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy. As its numbers expanded during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein established a Special Republican Guard to prevent a coup from emerging within the Republican Guard. This trend of fostering elite military units to protect the regime continued after 2003. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki fostered a personalistic relationship with Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Force. In 2014 it was thought the al-Maliki would mobilize these forces to prevent his replacement by Hayder al-Abadi, harkening back to the era of Iraq’s numerous coups, yet he relinquished power, attempting a political comeback during the elections of 2018 and 2021.
Mass Mobilization Militias
Mass-mobilization militias served a historic role in the Iraqi security architecture. The Ba’thist militia, the Popular Army (al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi) was founded in February 1970; it was subordinated to the Ba’th Party, opposed to the Ministry of Defence, as a militia to give citizens minimal military training and intense party indoctrination (Al-Marashi and Salama, 2008). Replace the word ‘army’ (jaysh) with ‘mobilization’ (Hashd) and the Popular Mobilization of Shi’a militias (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi), share the linguistic terminology with the Popular Army. As a structural feature of the Iraqi state, the Hashd that came into being after 2014 served a similar function of a mass-mobilization army, called up during times of crises. In theory, the Hashd was open up to all sects and minorities, and while some joined, the Hashd’s ranks were filled as a result of a primarily Arab Shi’a mobilization. Prior to the defeat of IS in Iraq, the Hashd attempted to find a modus-vivendi with Arab Sunnis tribes, attempting to incorporate them, which has served primarily public consumption efforts to project the image of the militias as non-sectarian. Some of these tribes did so, willingly seeking its patronage. Rather than seeing the Hashd as a uniquely sectarian phenomenon that emerged after 2014, it is emblematic of a trend of mass mobilisation militias emerging throughout Iraq’s history, whether under the centralized and high-autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein or the chaotic vicissitudes of Iraq’s 2003 politics.
After declaring victory over IS in December 2017, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi acknowledged the hybrid security Iraq inherited from the campaign: “I salute all the victorious: our valiant security, police and armed forces, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, our Counter-Terrorism Service, our air force and army aviation, the peshmerga and all the different formations of our armed forces.”  This speech essentially granted a state imprimatur to the security fragmentation that did not merely emerge after 2014 but was rather a ubiquitous element spanning over decades — from the resistance movements to Saddam Hussein, to the groups that emerged in the aftermath of his fall.
IS as a Hybrid Force
IS represented an amalgam of these aforementioned armed NSAAs in Iraq’s history. The remnants of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamist group that established itself in the north of Iraq, would be just one of the numerous Sunni insurgent groups, and a good number of its members would later distinguish themselves by gravitating towards Al-Qaida in Iraq, which would eventually morph into IS. When Saddam Hussein’s security sector was disbanded, this action provided recruits for Iraq’s insurgency, as well as individuals who would join IS. IS was a “mass mobilization militia” that recruited among Saddam Hussein’s “elite mobilization praetorians,” and “Arab tribal networks” as well. While other militias in Iraq sought to capture state institutions, such as the Badr Brigade or seek greater autonomy or independence within the state, such as the KDP or PUK, IS sought to dismantle the Iraqi state by creating its own Islamic state.
This examination of the past demonstrates both continuity and change from the early 1920s to the present of rival nodes of armed factions challenging the power of the state. The hybridization of security has been an enduring feature of Iraq’s history, an outcome of the vicissitudes of Iraq’s political evolution. Weber’s conception predicating state’s monopoly on the use of force, in fact, has fluctuated over time in Iraq, even during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein. Security hybridization under Saddam Hussein was primarily a top-down affair, managed by the state to deal with a range of NSAAs. The decline of state capacity after 2003 led to a reversal of this process. What were non-state actors prior to 2003, would later become aspiring state entities or entities seeking to capture the state. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the KDP and PUK, two opposition militias operating in the north of Iraq, would form the military of the KRG, while the Badr Brigade would come to Iraq from exile to emerge as one of many Shi’a militias and infiltrate the Ministry of Interior.
Both the US and the post-2003 Iraqi central government had sought to centralize the security sector, recreating a new national military based on a policy framework premised on Weberian assumptions of the importance of a singular institution, the army, to maintain a monopoly of armed force. However, devolving power to local militias and paramilitary forces became a de facto strategy — using Arab Sunni tribal militias to combat Al-Qaida affiliated insurgents as of 2007, and the Hashd and Kurdish militias to combat IS after 2014. While the US hoped that Iraqi state coercive institutions would defeat the insurgents and IS, it also hoped that the state would rein in the power of Hashd. Yet, after 2018, the Iraqi state included leaders of the militias as members of parliament and cabinet ministers who would have no incentive to do so. It was Iraq’s religious networks and public discontent that proved more effective in this regard.
This hybridity, in which the distinction between the state and NSAA has become increasingly blurred, has become a prevalent phenomenon in the region. While the US has vilified the Shi’a militias, they are embedded in a larger history of Iraq’s state building process. Ultimately Washington views Iraq’s Shi’a militias as adversaries, yet they emerged as a result of US decisions made after the 2003 invasion, ranging from the disbanding the Iraqi military and the failure to adequately develop a new army prior to 2014.
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