Friday, September 30, 2016

State Sovereignty and Military Force in the Middle East: the Case of Iraq’s PMUs

Iraq militia leaders Qa'is al-Khazali, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis
What threat do militias and armed forces which are not under the control of the  state pose for its sovereignty?  In Iraq,  a large number of militias were created after the Dacish (the so-called Islamic State) seized Mosul in June 2014.  What are the ramifications of the formation of military units beyond the control of the central state? 

Max Weber’s well-known definition of the state as the institution which enjoys a monopoly on the use of force within a given territory is increasingly meaningless in the MENA region.  A survey of the states of the region indicates that the majority of states are challenged by oppositional military forces or are unable to  reign in militias which compete with the national army.

Moving from west to east, the Algerian military is challenged by an al-Qacida affiliate – al-Qacida  in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM).  In neighboring Libya, there is only a nominal  national army, with real power residing in a myriad of militias which are largely tribally and/or regionally based. 

Tunisia also faces a threat from a militia which has sworn allegiance to Dacish in the northwest of the country while Egypt faces a challenge to its national authority in the Sinai Peninsula from the so-called Wilayat Sina' (the Sinai Province) which has pledged loyalty to the Dacish.

In Lebanon, the national army has always been weak in relation to the militias controlled by the political power brokers (al-zu’ama) of the country's various ethno-sectarian groups, whether it be Hizb Allah, the Lebanese Forces, the Druz Militia and many others.  In Syria, of course, there is a beleaguered national army which most likely would have collapsed in the face of multiple militias throughout the country, were it not for Russian intervention on the side of the Bashar al-Asad regime.

Although Turkey boasts the most powerful  military in the MENA region after Israel, it faces a serious threat from a guerrilla movement, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which it has fought from 30 years.  Just when it appeared that the conflict might be nearing resolution, the regime of President Recep Tayyib Erdo─čan decided to forsake negotiations for a reintroduction of military force to bring the PKK and its supporters to heel. ow is this problem mpalying itsdelf in Iraq/HH

Yemen is largely a failed state, and all the more so, after the indiscriminate bombing by Saudi Arabia over the past year in its effort to defeat Houthi forces.  In other words, very few states in the MENA region have control over their territories from a political-military point of view.

Thus we find (at least) 3 patterns in terms of state-military force relations.  First there are a few states which fit Weber’s definition, such as Morocco, Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman.   

A second pattern is  countries which fall into the failed state category such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, where there is no state control over the national territory.  A third pattern is where the state is fighting insurgencies, such as Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria.  

Finally, there are states in which militias challenge the authority of the central government. Lebanon is the quintessential example of a nation-state where the national army has always been subordinated to more powerful ethno-sectarian based militias.
Hizb Allah Brigades firing captured US M198 howitzers
Two other states in which militias challenge the power of the central state are Iran and Iraq, which brings us to the topic of this post.  In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards are the supreme military force and compete with traditional military forces.  In Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs (al-hashad al-shacbi) likewise threaten to become more powerful than the national army.

Why have the PMUs become so powerful in Iraq?  At the more general level, their emergence reflects a number of developments.  First, the MENA region, like other regions of the world, has seen the undermining of secular nationalism. 

Second, the emergence of what we may call “third party” armed forces represents the concomitant rise of sectarianism in the Middle East.  Ethno-sectarian groups – as in Lebanon – don’t trust the central state to protect their communal interests.  Third, sectarian entrepreneurs exploit the dual structure of armed forces to provide themselves with an informal source of power and influence which can be used to intimidate political rivals.

In Iraq, the PMUs were established following the seizure of Mosul and much of northeastern Iraq in June and July of 2014.  The story of how Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pursued highly sectarian policies in Mosul and Iraq’s Sunni majority provinces, following his reappointment to a second term in 2010, has been told many times before. Maliki sold positions in the military to Iraqis who had little or no military experience, dismissed competent military officers who were replaced with those loyal to him, and attacked Sunni politicians who he thought would challenge his political position.  

Maliki’s sending of security forces to fire on peaceful protestors in al-Hawija on April 23, 2013 constituted the "straw that broke the camel's back.".  Following similar events in Mosul and Falluja in March 2013, which failed to provide any accountability despite a purported investigation, Maliki completely alienated Iraqi’s Sunni populace. Such behavior angered the residents of al-Anbar, Salahidin and Ninawa provinces and created fertile soil for the so-called Islamic State (Dacish) to recruit fighters to their organization.

Following the seizure of Mosul by the Da’ish and their progress in moving their forces south towards Baghdad, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a religious decree (al-fatwa) calling on Iraqi to take up arms to defend Baghdad and the nation from the Dacish.
Qa'is al-Khazali
Some militias already existed at the time such as Hadi al-Amiri’s Badr Organization ( which was once the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (subsequently more benignly renamed the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council), and Qa’is al-Khazali’s League of the Righteous People (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq -

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’s Hizb Allah Brigades (Kata’ib Hizb Allah -, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Companies (Saraya’ al-Salam), the successor to the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi - were also militias beyond the control of the state.
A copy PM al-Abadi's Order 91, Feb 22, 2016
While these militias were pivotal in preventing Dacish forces from reaching Baghdad, and have been assisting the Iraqi Army to defeat and push Dacish forces out of al-Anbar and Salahidin provinces, a number of them – particularly the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous People and the Hizb Allah Brigades – are appendages of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The official legitimation of the “Popular Mobilization Front” (PMF) by Order 91, signed on February 22nd of this year by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, referred to the militia front as an “independent military formation.”
Qassem Solamani in Anbar Province
In addition to having military units which demonstrate greater loyalty to Qassem Solimani, the head of the IRGC, and Ali Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, than to Iraq’s Prime Minister, the constitutionally constituted commander in chief of Iraq's armed forces and all military forces within Iraqi territory, Iraq now has a “fifth column” operating in its sovereign territory (
There are other alarm bells which have been rung by the creation of separate military forces under the control of militia leaders who profess loyalty to a foreign leader (paralleling the lack of control by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the IRGC). 
One such issue is that of corruption.  Iraq enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most corrupt nation-states in the world – 161 of 166 countries on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (
Militias do not receive funding from the state.  While Iran has provided training for Iraqi Shici youth fighting in Syria and monthly wages in the neighborhood of $600, an Iraqi colleague recently informed me that hose wages have been reduced for youth fighting inn Syria.  To keep amassing recruits, militias constantly need to find new recruits and funds with which to pay them.
The incentive for Iraqi youth to join militias is less ideology than steady employment.  If militias cannot provide steady income for its young fighters, they will leave the front.  There is a strong incentive, therefore, to find new sources of income which makes the state budget a primary target for acquiring additional funds.  
The existence of a parallel set of armed forces in Iraq works against the effort of Prime Minister al-Abadi to bring corruption under control.  Because they have military force at their beck and call, militia leaders can entice cabinet ministers, parliament member and other state bureaucrats to bend to their will.  Intimidation is another option at their disposal. 
Because Iran provides wages for Iraqi PMUs, the Islamic Republic now has a permanent client base in Iraq.  Knowing that Iran has such power makes al-Abadi and other Iraqi politicians think twice about adopting policies viewed and unfavorable to Iran.
As an example of the power of the Popular Militia Front, there is an effort in the Iraqi Council opf Deputies (parliament) to give militias legal immunity.  Currently, only parliamentary deputies enjoy legal immunity.  Under the pretense that such immunity is necessary for all PMU members before they enter the battle for Mosul, it would impossible to prosecute any militia members who engaged in human rights abuses ( ).
Because PMU have committed human rights abuses and have engaged in looting, this law threatens to undermine any victory by the Iraqi Army over the Dacish.  As all analysts have noted, the real struggle for Mosul and other areas liberated from the Dacish will begin after its military defeat.
If local populaces feel that they have rid themselves of one oppressor only to find them controlled by new forces which they consider equally oppressive, any military victory will ring hollow.