With much focus on the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), there lacks a full consensus on the political future of the city, especially, how to maintain security.
As the Iraqi army, Peshmerga, Sunni tribal militia, and Shiite-led Population Mobilization Units (PMUs), painstakingly clear Mosul of IS fighters, an active local security force will be vital to keep the hard-fought gains.
Well-armed Iraqi forces wilted away as IS launched its lightning advance on Mosul in 2014.
It was the PMUs or Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella of mainly Shiite militia factions formed after a fatwa from influential cleric Ali al-Sistani, that stopped IS at the doors of Baghdad which was also instrumental in ousting IS from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit.
The effectiveness of militia forces, when government forces already exist, speaks volumes about the sectarian undertones that continue to undermine Iraq.
The most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, which poses a grave long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.
The reliance on sectarian militias raises the prospect of more communal fuelled violence and revenge attacks. Reports of sectarian crimes marred the liberation of Fallujah and Tikrit.
In many ways IS capitalized on long-running Sunni discontent to assume power. Many tribal forces sided with IS as they saw them as a lesser evil than Shiite-dominated Baghdad.
A demand of the Sunnis has long been greater autonomy, and it is unclear what Baghdad will do to maintain long-term security in Sunni heartlands such as Mosul.
Leaving weak state forces in control of Mosul is risky, but at the same time, the presence of more powerful Shiite militias is a red line for Sunnis.
With even state forces lacking the overall trust of Iraqis as a sectarian neutral force, the only solution may well be to empower Sunni tribal militias. The PMU have already incorporated some smaller Sunni militias to give the flavor of a national force, but these are Sunnis with positive affiliations with Baghdad.
The Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils were capable of driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008. While the PMUs were given a legal status in November 2016, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, refused to incorporate Sahwa councils into state security apparatus for fear that they may turn their guns on Baghdad.
As an official independent entity of the Iraqi Armed Forces, the PMU in theory come under the command of the Prime Minister. However, it’s doubtful if Baghdad has jurisdiction of the many disparate groups such as Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
It’s hard to ensure that these militia forces will cut political or social group affiliations, if not impossible.
The presence of many powerful militias also raises prospects of intra-fighting amongst sects. For example, it could lead to the marginalization of rival militias, Iraqi forces or allows a political party to dominate power.
According to Lt Gen. Stephen J. Townsend of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, if the PMU forces could resemble more of a national guard and not a “puppet” of Iran, it could make Iraq more secure.
Many of the groups within the PMU already have strong connections with Iran, and this only adds to animosity with Sunnis and a sense of Iranian leverage over Baghdad. Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, has personally overseen many PMU battles raising suspicion.
But with their official status ensured, there is a danger that the powerful PMU forces may become the equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a force that serves political and sectarian loyalties than that of the state alone.
Hezbollah similarly mirrors this in Lebanon. They became a powerful parallel security structure that enjoys vast political and security influence.
Animosity and potential for clashes also stretch to Peshmerga forces, and there has been heightened rhetoric leading to skirmishes between both sides.
After a recent attack by a sub-unit of Hashd al-Shaabi on Peshmerga positions in Shingal, Sarbast Lezgin, a Peshmerga commander, warned of “loosely supervised groups within Hashd al-Shaabi who wish to create tension.”
According to Lezgin, “in December of last year alone, our positions were targeted four times.”
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has emphasized the need for a comprehensive political solution post-IS to ensure same sectarian-fuelled environment does not lead to more instability. Barzani underscored in addition to fighting on the battlefield, “the intellectual, financial, political and social support for ISIS should be eliminated.”
However, although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki to heal the long neglected sectarian divide, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.
First Published: Kurdistan 24