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Iraq’s New Prime Minister Needs to Take Control of His Security Forces

Mustafa al-Kadhimi has already implemented positive changes, but he’ll need to rein in the country’s vast array of militias to bring lasting stability to the country.

By , the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.
Members of the Popular Mobilization Units.
Members of the Popular Mobilization Units advance toward the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, on Aug. 22, 2017. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, faces numerous political and economic challenges coming into office, but his main task will be reining in the country’s plethora of security forces—some of which compete against each other.

Kadhimi’s background in activism and intelligence makes him well-placed to confront Baghdad’s challenges. His first actions in office have included releasing protesters from jail and reinstating Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as counterterrorism commander. Saadi’s dismissal by then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in September 2019 fed a widespread feeling of resentment that led to anti-government protests in October. Kadhimi’s decision to appoint a leader who was key to the fight against the Islamic State and to release prisoners who have suffered abuses at the hands of security forces over the past several months is a sign of his seriousness in mending the country’s deep divisions.

It’s a good start, but Kadhimi will need to exert his authority over Iraq’s security forces in order to truly stabilize the country. Iraq is burdened by the presence of several different paramilitary units due, in part, to the weakness of its regular army. The Iraqi army was dismantled and then rebuilt after the 2003 U.S. invasion, part of a process of removing the legacy of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime that sent many of its most experienced officers packing. The army had to be rebuilt again after it collapsed in the face of the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014.Kadhimi will need to exert his authority over Iraq’s security forces in order to truly stabilize the country.

The U.S.-led coalition has helped train 225,000 members of the security forces since 2014, including army and air force units. The Iraqi army now has around 150,000 personnel across 55 brigades.

Among the largest armed organizations in the country is the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which commands approximately 150,000 personnel and has a $2 billion budget. Initially raised as a group of disparate militias, some of which were politically close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the PMU was made an official arm of the state in March 2018. Despite efforts to consolidate its member groups into a single body, the PMU still contains around 100 brigades, many of which maintain affiliations with political, religious, or tribal groups that complicate their relationship with the Iraqi state. Some units have been implicated in rocket attacks on U.S. coalition forces, and four PMU brigades linked to senior Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani recently expressed their desire to split from the organization to become part of the Iraqi defense ministry.

In northern Iraq, the Kurdistan autonomous region has its own security forces known as Peshmerga, which also number around 150,000 soldiers. The organization nominally falls under the control of the regional government’s Ministry of Peshmerga, but dozens of its brigades are more closely affiliated with two larger divisions that are linked to Kurdistan’s two dominant political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Iraq also has a large militarized police force, called the Federal Police, which played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State and is under the auspices of the interior ministry. Within the ministry’s ecosystem of tens of thousands of personnel is the Emergency Response Division, which played a role not only in the 2017 battle of Mosul, in which the Islamic State was pushed out of the city, but also in clashes with protesters in which activists were killed.

Outside of the nationally and regionally organized military groups, there are several tribal armed units and local militias across the country—some of which are linked to the PMU and others to regional governorates—that have been accused of involvement in vigilantism. For example, on May 11, security forces raided an office of a group called Thaar Allah in Basra, which was accused of shooting protesters during demonstrations in the city.

The presence of such a sprawling constellation of armed groups with no central governing authority and, often, competing aims presents two major security challenges to the Iraqi government.

First, some of the security forces have been involved in many extrajudicial incidents, including attacks on protesters and firing rockets at U.S. forces. The United States typically blames the paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah, a member of the PMU, for the rocket attacks. But attacks on protesters have been linked to a variety of different groups, including Badr, Saraya Khorasani, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Hundreds of protesters were killed and thousands wounded in unrest between October 2019 and January 2020, many at the hands of militia groups.

The other problem is that most paramilitary groups have sectarian, tribal, and political loyalties that present a serious challenge to the Iraqi government’s authority. Some of this stems from the intricacies of modern Iraqi society and are deeply rooted in the country’s complex history, so to some degree this system won’t go away. But the inability of recent prime ministers to work within this system and exercise any meaningful control over paramilitary groups has completely undermined the state’s legitimacy, strengthened the local and national power of militia groups, and ensured that the government could not exert control when order broke down.The presence of such a sprawling constellation of armed groups with no central governing authority presents major security challenges to the Iraqi government.

Reinstalling Saadi as counterterrorism chief and releasing protesters from prison will help to placate the public, but Kadhimi will need to curtail the power of local militia groups in order to bring a more lasting sense of stability to Iraq. This means exerting control over the PMU by replacing the multilayered leadership structure that currently exists with a more formalized hierarchy whose authority ultimately flows from the state. In addition to giving the government tighter control over militias, this would also help to identify and isolate those elements that continue to give their allegiance to groups other than the state.

The government also needs to lean more on governorates, as opposed to extralegal sectarian factions, and it should encourage local officials to rely more on police and military forces as opposed to PMU units, as the governor of Anbar province did in 2018. Kadhimi could also aim to work more closely with some of the more moderate pro-Iran elements of the PMU, exerting greater influence over them and sidelining others that are closer to Tehran. Giving government-trained counterterrorism units a larger role in the fight against the Islamic State and reducing the role of the PMU in this area will give the federal government greater control over sensitive operations and eventually reduce the standing of semi-independent militias.

In the face of a new threat from the Islamic State, the possible drawdown of coalition forces, and economic and social unrest, Iraq’s new prime minister faces both a challenge and an opportunity. He acted quickly to reappoint Saadi, but this needs to be the foundation for broader security reform, and Kadhimi’s ultimate objective must be to exert his government’s control over the country’s myriad security forces. The divisions in Iraq are too ingrained to disappear overnight, but taking control of the security situation is a necessary precondition for stabilizing the country.

Seth J. Frantzman is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East. He has covered the Middle East for the Jerusalem Post, Defense News, and other publications. Twitter: @sfrantzman