It is striking how the Iraqi Army (IA), once considered one of the most powerful of the Middle East, faded away in Mosul on summer 2014. In 1962, responding to a question by a journalist about the failure in the Bay of Pigs, John Fitzgerald Kennedy answered quoting Tacitus: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan”.
Nowadays, if we look at the re-conquest of Mosul, this quote is truer than ever, since heterogeneous and patchy forces liberated the city, all claiming victory: the “Golden Division” of the Counter Terrorism Service, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Iraqi Army units, the Federal Police Rapid Response Brigades and Security Forces paramilitaries, local militias and several People Mobilisation Forces (PMF) groups.
As a matter of fact, IA is blamed for feeble cohesion, widespread corruption, absenteeism, nepotism, low coordination and training; but this reality is rooted in the history of Iraq. Saddam Hussein actually imposed his absolute personal control over the army, politicising it and placing clanic affiliates in key positions; the ra‘is established elite units as praetorians of the regime, exploited patronage networks and fostered internal competition in the army.
However, at the eve of Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the IA was broken down by Saddam Hussein’s policies, a protracted state of war since 1979, the defeat after Kuwait’s invasion in 1991 and a decade of sanctions. Nevertheless, when Saddam was toppled, the IA still represented a valuable framework for social control and cohesion, but its disbandment by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), coped by the de-ba‘thification policy, led to its complete breakup.
From 2003 to 2011, the United States attempted to rebuild the Iraqi Security Forces, together with the state civilian institutions. Notwithstanding these sincere efforts, the premature military disengagement of the U.S. in 2011 boosted the Iranian influence in domestic politics and security. Moreover, an effective consolidation of the IA was hampered by the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki(2006-14): he implemented sectarian policies which fractured the cohesion of the Iraqi state and society, pursuing also authoritarian policies in order to strengthen his personal control on the political and military system. This resulted into an alienation of the Sunni community, hostility from the Kurds, and an army plagued by sectarian polarisation and political meddling. The level of deterioration of the IA was tangible when, on summer 2014, Da‘esh almost reached Baghdad.
To reverse the tide, the Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa called all the citizens to arms. Militias mushroomed and with the help of the Global Coalition against Da‘esh, as well as of Iran, the so-called Islamic State was stopped; these Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), mostly ShiitE , formed a heterogeneous paramilitary force, reflecting the kaleidoscopic political panorama of the Shi‘a community: some of them are loyal to al-Sistani, others to Muqtada al-Sadr, while others as Kata‘ib Hizballah, Badr Organisation and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq are closely linked to Iran. As a matter of fact, thanks to Iranian-linked Shi‘a political parties, the PMF role was officially recognised by the law as a separate and permanent armed force independent from the Iraqi Army. But due to the prevailing sectarian nature of the PMF’s core, these militias represent a deeply contentious issue: as a consequence of the PMF’s law approval, Sunni parliamentarians withdrew their support to the National Settlement plan. Muqtada al-Sadr, who considers the PMF as a Trojan horse exploited by Iran to penetrate the Iraqi state, wants them dissolved, incorporating their fighters into IA and the police.
Prime minister Haider al-‘Abadi, unable to disband the PMF, tried to limit their military role during the anti-Da‘esh campaign and put –at least formally- militias under the prime minister command. Moreover, due to the impossibility to approve the National Guard (NG) law because of the Kurdish and the Shi‘a opposition, al-‘Abadi is trying to dilute the PMF sectarian nature including also Sunni militias: the dispute on the National Guard and the PMF is decisive for the future of Iraq. The National Guard may constitute a powerful tool for Sunnis’ inclusioN , since is conceived to be centred at a provincial level, thus empowering local communities and hereby granting autonomy to the Sunni community, a legitimate self-protection and an active role in the struggle against Da‘esh. On the contrary, the PMF is a federal institution, controlled by the Shi‘a-ruled central government. But there is even more at stake, and it is the essence of Iraqi state institutions: the PMF not only constitute a competitor of the IA, an almost sectarian force and an alternative to the National Guard, but represent also a powerful leverage for an Iranian styled state-building project: by shaping the PMF on the model of the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Pasdaran, Tehran is crafting the future of the Iraqi state. Two different visions of Security Sector Reform (SSR), as well as of Iraq’s institutions, are competing in Baghdad. The hybrid nature of the PMF -at the same time religious, military and political actors- makes them the perfect tool to deeply permeate the Iraqi state and society. Therefore, the PMF are also an instrument to influence the Iraqi state-building process, thus granting a powerful leverage to Tehran. On the contrary, strengthening a de-politicised and non-sectarian army, respectful of the democratic principles, would decisively empower pro-Western political and social forces of Iraq.
Next provincial and federal elections will be probably held on May 2018, when will also expire al-‘Abadi’s term as Prime Minister: main pro-Iranian militias are planning to participate to the elections, bypassing the ban imposed to armed factions by the new law on political parties, and registering as political movements. Al-Maliki, who is al-‘Abadi’s staunchest rival, is betting unsurprisingly his political future on an unconditional support to the pro-Iranian PMF, in order to rally electoral support. On the other hand, , al-‘Abadi is strengthening his links with the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), a professional and cohesive elite unit responding directly to the Prime Minister. He appointed top ranks of the CTS to high level security and political positions, including Erfan al Hiyali, current Minister of Defence: the CTS is not only an incubator for military talent, but, as the PMF, it is also a springboard for political career. Current civil-military relations are based on the primacy of the civilian side but, if these osmotic trends will keep on going, there is the risk of a reversal in the long-term.
Notwithstanding the victory in Mosul, the real status of the IA and other security forces is worrisome. The Army is weak and fragile, PMF are gaining territorial control and institutional space, the NG project it’s at a standstill, while CTS is worn out. The current crisis of IA reflects the precariousness of Iraq’s state-building process, where almost all public institutions are weak and discredited. IA, plagued by sectarianism and politicisation, mirrors the Iraqi society, marked by ethnic and religious polarisation, as well as by political forces competing for the exclusive control of state institutions.
Therefore, the current post-Da‘esh phase presents challenges not only at a political level, like the imperative of the Sunni inclusion and the rapprochement with the Kurds, but also for the security sector. From 2003 on, the Iraqi security forces were primarily trained as a counterinsurgency force and the National Security Strategy identifies counterterrorism as the principal challenge. However, the IA faced a shocking defeat by an insurgency force, Da‘esh, in 2014. Now, it is time to rebuild and reform the security sector as a whole, secure the borders and strengthen counterinsurgency capabilities, with a specific focus on counter-terrorism; moreover, overlappeing tasks and roles among different forces (army, police and militias) have to be cleared.
With regard to the armed forces, Iraq needs a smaller army, with reinforced support units; senior leadership is a point of concern, since it should be downsized, de-politicised, and improved following professional criteria of selection. On civil-military relations, the civilian oversight must be preserved, but ministries related to security sector should be free form sectarian meddling. The Chief of Defence role needs to be strengthened through a competent staff, with effective powers in order to promote reforms and autonomy dealing with military issues. The IA suffers a lack of popular legitimacy: it must enhance the connection with local population (bottom-up level) and impose its primacy on PMF (top-down level).
Unluckily, all these good intentions are already clashing with unavoidable political and economic restraints. But there is something that is even more important: surely, the evolution of Iraqi politics and Baghdad’s security sector will be heavily influenced by the United States and Iran, but most of all it will be shaped by next elections’ winner.
Giovanni Parigi, Adjunct Professor of Arab Culture, Department of Linguistic and Cultural Mediation Sciences, University of Milan.
 Al-Maliki, as Saddam, developed patronage networks appointing loyal officrs and removing thous constituting a possible threat of glope. Moreover, the Counter Terrorism Units were detached under his personal control.
 PMF are composed by roughly 110.000 fighters, including 25-30.000 Sunnis and few Christians and Yazidis.
 The PMF organization was constituted by uniting existing militias under the “Popular Mobilization Committee” of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014.
 Approved by the Parliament on November 26th 2016, then signed by the President but not yet enacted.
 It is a post-Da‘esh political reconciliation plan, proposed by the Shi‘a block of National Alliance and endorsed by UN.
 However, in order to be really effective, the establishment of the NG must be paired by a reform of the legislation banning former Baathist institutions’ members from the public employment.
 Its units would be recruited at provincial level, and based locally, answerable to the provincial government and then to the prime minister, and will be independent from the Army.
 Hayali served as the head of CTS training and development unit for 10 years.