Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Neither Sovereign Nor Failed: The Destabilizing Impact of Iraq’s Militia-Mafia State

Members of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashad al-Sha'bi)
The continue killings of democracy activists in Iraq, especially youth, without anyone being held accountable, highlights the complete lack of control of Iran’s proxy militias by the Federal government in Baghdad.  The ability of the militias to dominate large swaths of Iraq’s economy points not just to the Iraqi state’s inability to control the means of violence within its borders, but the extent to which Iraq has become a country of mafia style crime syndicates.   

What does this violence and criminality tell us about  state formation in the Middle East? The Iraqi state is neither sovereign, because the central government has only nominal control of its security forces, not failed, as the state continues to provide salaries to its employees and social services – however degraded – to its citizenry.  The larger issue is what does imply for Iraq’s future and for the political stability, of lack thereof, of the Middle East, especially the attempt to reign in Iran’s meddling  in neighboring countries? 


States in the Arab world can be characterized as stable autocracies, e.g., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, competitive authoritarian regimes, e.g., Algeria, failed and quasi-failed states, e.g., Yemen, Libya and Syria, and proto-democracies, e.g. Tunisia and Sudan. However, a new type of state has emerged in Iraq and Lebanon – the "militia-mafia state."  In the militia-mafia state, elections occur and a central government exists.  However, the military power and control over much of the economy lies in the hands of powerful militias, whether Hizballah in Lebanon or Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq.  


In considering this state formation, we can find other examples beyond the Middle East.  The FARC have for many years controlled much of Columbia’s economy through cocaine production and sales as the Taliban have likewise dominated much of the Afghan economy with heroine production and sales.  For many years, crime syndicates in southern Italy, such as La Cosa Nostra (Mafia), Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta, controlled government contracts in the south and continue drug and human trafficking as well as penetrating Italy’s banks in the northern part of the country. 

Although the militias who control much of the Iraqi economy have adopted  “religious” titles, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Kata’ib Hizballah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’, their goals and behavior have little or nothing to do with Islam.  As a movement which begin under Bush administration auspices in 2003 with the return to Iraq of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Corps, it blossomed after the Islamic State (IS) seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014. 


As IS forces took control of Mosul and much of north central Iraq, the Iraqi Army collapsed, largely due to the corrupt and sectarian behavior of then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. On June 13, 2021, as the IS was approaching Baghdad, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa entitled, “Collective Responsibility” (wajib kifa'i) which called upon all able-bodied Iraqis to defend their nation.   


Sistani’s call to arms was embraced by large numbers of Iraqis, especially in the Shi a dominated south.  A number of new militias were formed and the established militias’ influence grew and attracted many new recruits.  Officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrived to help the militias fight the Dacish and US military trainers joined the battle as well. Once the Islamic State advance was halted, and the militias were no longer  needed, it was expected that the newly established ones would disband and other militia members would be integrated into the Iraqi army. 


It quickly became clear that the militias, both established and new, had no intention of giving up their newly enhanced political power.  Over time, the militias have become a major part of the Ministry of Interior’s elite security forces, providing full-time government jobs for poor youth who lack the possibility for finding meaningful employment. Thus, the militias have developed a loyal social base among those poor youth who lack education and skills. Likewise, they have been recognized by the Federal Government as official members of Iraq’s armed forces.  


Nominally under the control of the Office of the Prime Minister, the militia movement has become increasingly powerful and ignored the central government.  As its military power has grown, it has institutionalized its armed units and engaged in attacks on the remnants of the Islamic State in al-Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninawa and Diyala Provinces.  It has coordinated much of its military activity with the IRGC which has seen its influence in Iraq grow substantially since 2014. 

Much attention has been given to the PMUs ability to operate military apart from control by the Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Less attention has been given to the parallel economy it has developed as a result of widespread illicit and criminal activity.  First, it has assumed control of many Iraqi highways where, under the claim that is providing security, it monitors traffic and collects tolls.  In addition to control of highways, the militias collect fees at border crossings where they engage in smuggling goods into Iraq without paying customs duties. 


After the defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul, the PMUs have seized considerable land and allowed some of it to be placed under the control of the Shici Waqf Endowment, despite the fact that Mosul is primarily comprised Sunni Muslims. While there are also a number of Sunni militias, the Shici militias dominate the military and economic activity of much of the Sunni Arab provinces which adds to local sectarian tensions.  


Iran has tried to defuse these tensions by developing ties to local notables. It is known that Muhammad al-Halbusi, the Sunni Speaker of Parliament, is closely tied to Iran.  Nevertheless, many Iraqis are fearful of the growth of Iranian political and economic influence in Iraq. These feelings have been vocally expressed by the youth supporters of Thawrat Tishreen (October Revolution) which began in October 2019.   


As demonstrations supporting October revolution have spread in Baghdad and throughout the south of Iraq, the militias have been in the forefront of attacking the peaceful protestors. At the time of this writing, more than 600 demonstrators have been killed and over 24,000 wounded.  Many leaders of the protests and democracy activists have been killed, abducted and tortured. To date, not a single militia member accused of killing protestors have been brought to trial. 


Complicating matters still further is the destabilizing role the militias are playing in the struggle against the Islamic State’s efforts to reestablish itself in the Sunni Arab province of North central and Western Iraq. Since the defeat of the Da’ish on the battlefield in the summer of 2017, the militias, working on behalf of Iran, have been trying to force US and NATO troops to leave Iraq. This has resulted in an increasing number of attacks on Iraqi airbases directed primarily at US aircraft. 


The tension between Iran’s proxy militias intensified when Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on IRGC general, Qasem Suleimani, on January 3, 2020, which also killed the leader of the PMU movement, Abu Mahdi Muhandis, who was accompanying him. Angry demonstrations ensued and the militias mobilized parliamentary members supportive of Iraq to vote on a resolution that US forces immediately leave Iraq.   


The resolution was passed without a quorum and thus had no legal status.  Nevertheless, it led to an attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad and increased efforts to end the US and NATO coalition training mission for Iraqi Army forces.  At first, US forces were attacked with crude. missiles from launchers near the airbases.  More recently, using more high technology drones which carry explosives and fly below radar detection, the attacks threaten to become more lethal.  


The growing power of the PMUs and tensions with the US have led to two air strikes – one last February and one this June - on militia bases along the Syrian border and one in Iraq.  The attacks were meant to destroy rocket launchers and drones.  New demonstrations by militia supporters and calls for US forces to leave Iraq have intensified.

At the same time that the United States is trying to negotiate with Iran to reinstate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Operating Agreement (JCPOA).  Both sides seek to reach an agreement – the US wants to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and Iran is desperate to end the hundreds of US sanctions which have seriously compromised its economy.  

However, the US cannot tolerate attacks on its forces in Iraq. Engaging in counter-attacks on Iran’s proxy militias, such as happened this past week, complicates the negotiations because it brings Iraq into the equation.  No matter how antipathetic to the militias, Prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi cannot allow the US attacks on militia forces to go unanswered. 

In short, the militia state in Iraq has created a "state within a state" which possesses more power than the central government.  It is already having a detrimental impact on Iraqi politics and society and could threaten the negotiations with Iran to curtail nuclear weapons proliferation in the MENA region.  This "political dualism" constitutes a new form of the state - a "militia-mafia state."  It may take hold in other states in the Middle East, foreshadowing even more political instability in already unstable region.