Iraq’s Competing Security Forces After the Battle for Mosul


In July 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced victory and the end of the “fake Daesh [ISIL] state”. But the prime minister was careful with his wording. He did not want to proclaim another “mission accomplished” in relation to a Salafi-jihadi group. Iraq has been there before: Consider the fate of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2005, or the Islamic State of Iraq in 2008. Prime Minister Al-Abadi, according to interviews with his advisors, is well aware that the roots of the Islamic State — neglect, marginalization and corruption — remain rife and that Iraq is far from entering a post-Islamic State (ISIL) phase in this sense.

The international community has fewer qualms. It is already starting to view Iraq as “post-Islamic State” to which it can apply its standardized state-building formula, including in the area of security sector reform. For one, the United States intends to supersize its train and equip efforts for Iraq’s Security Forces by expanding the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq’s remit from the army to include civilian and police security organizations. It will have about $13 billion to spend.

This is a risky strategy. Iraq has several effective and legitimate armies today – the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, largely Shia paramilitaries), along with local tribal forces. Strengthening only the former without a plan for the other state-recognized military forces reflects conventional thinking that says the use of force must be centralized to strengthen state power. This ignores Iraq’s realities and, in particular, its fragmented political and security situation. A push for centralization is likely to lead to more violence. Instead, Baghdad needs a more creative approach to security sector reform that respects existing political interests while making it more difficult to take recourse to violence.

Exhibit 1: Political interests

The struggle for political control over the Iraqi state is characterized by interfering foreign powers, high levels of corruption, and intra– as well as inter- ethno-sectarian tensions. Iran is the most dominant foreign power in Iraq, but it is neither all powerful nor universally loved. Iran nevertheless assertively pursues its interests by backing a range of Shia leaders and groups within the paramilitary PMF that do not always see eye-to-eye with the state. Armed groups like the Badr Organization and Asaib ahl al-Haq have developed political wings and compete for parliamentary representation — a trend that is likely to strengthen in the run-up to the 2018 elections.

In addition, the so-called Sunni-Shia conflict, or rather growing anxieties of Iran’s regional role, reinforces the incentives of Iranian-backed groups to remain a force in their own right. If one interprets the crisis with Qatar as a Saudi/Emirati attempt to bring the foreign policy of a wayward “ally” in line with their own preferences, the regional conflict is only deepening. Iran might seek a similar tightening of alliance and “loyalty” in Iraq (or other places) in response. Tehran will be even more keen to tighten the alliance given growing anti-Iranian sentiment amongst the Iraqi Shia. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman, highlights persistent intra-Shia differences, based partly on a dispute over Iran’s influence, within the PMF.

But, increasingly, many Iraqis consider corruption a greater blockage to security sector reform than sectarianism. The politics of corruption are particularly salient. Since 2003, Iraq’s political order has been characterized by a quota system that assures the country’s Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni populations of political representation in the national government. One consequence of this system is that Iraq’s political establishment has seen little influx of new talent and preciously little leadership rotation. This has entrenched power and increased incentives for corruption. Many of Iraq’s political elites enriched themselves after 2003 by abusing influential public jobs, lucrative government contracts, and other state-conferred privileges for private gain. Their inability to deliver good governance is part of the explanation for the durability of groups like ISIL. The growing protest movements of the past years show a rising level of anger of ordinary Iraqis with the underperformance of their political leaders. These demonstrations pit Shia citizens against Shia leaders in Baghdad and the south, as well as Kurdish citizens against Kurdish leaders in Sulaymania and elsewhere. On the street, the feeling is that the government has been more corrupt than responsive or representative.

Such politics of corruption are also a major problem for security sector reform. Poor tendering, contract management, and dodgy salary administration in the Ministries of Defence and Interior have weakened these institutions and damaged the reputation of the state security apparatus. For instance, Iraqi security forces procured dysfunctional bomb detectors that led to scores of unnecessary casualties. Such practices also extent to Iraq’s paramilitary PMF. Our interviews with ranking Iraqi politicians indicate that the approximately $1 to $1.5 billion allocated for payment of PMF salaries in the fiscal year 2016 ran out in September while stories of clientelist control — i.e., which group actually gets paid and how much — are rife.

Finally, inter and intra- ethno-sectarian tensions continue to limit the possibilities for security sector reform. This is because they maintain levels of political disunity that make security sector integration close to impossible. Such tensions exist both between and within ethno-sectarian sects. For example, Iraq’s Sunnis continue to feel underrepresented. Lacking well-established political parties gives them a powerful incentive to look to local or non-state security actors for protection against abuse. But at the same time, Iraq’s Sunni suffer from internal divisions. Sunni populations in recently-liberated areas — from Diyala to Kirkuk and from Anbar to Ninewah — hesitate to return to their own political or tribal leaders because of their past performance, corruption, and behavior. While issue-based politics slowly gains over identity-based politics due to the poor performance of ruling elites, it is these very same elites that are firmly in control.

Exhibit 2: Iraq’s State of Security

In this political context, two further factors influence the prospects for security sector reform that are more directly security-related. The first is that Iraq, as noted, has several “legitimate” armies: the state security forces, the Peshmerga, and the PMF. The latter two are hybrid security actors in the sense that they command coercive capacities but compete and cooperate with state security forces at the same time. All three security actors enjoy high levels of legitimacy within their constituencies and are recognized by the state.

As to the PMF, the challenge is not with the groups that will disband after the fighting against the Islamic State terminates, but with the groups that will not. These are largely Iranian-backed groups that include the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteousness (Asaib ahl al-Haq), and Kataib Hezbollah. They openly seek to undermine Abadi. Compounding the problem of Iranian influence, is the fact that these groups are not just proxies. They have significant agency of their own and some of their leaders are prominent figures on the Iraqi political scene in their own right. For example, Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Badr Organization and its 22 parliamentarians, is vying for a political position and seeks to unseat Abadi. Such groups and leaders will continue to operate in parallel to state security forces as long as this gives them a domestic competitive advantage. In consequence, they will block any outright moves to bring their forces under greater state control. Thus, the law of November 2016 that “transformed” the PMF into a statutory but separate state security force, will remain a paper tiger for now.

As to the Kurdish Peshmerga, its loyalties mostly lie with political leaders in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Because the Peshmerga now largely dominate the so-called “disputed areas” (areas over which both Baghdad and Erbil claim direct control), they will increasingly compete with state security forces. This will significantly complicate security sector reform. A referendum on the future status of Iraq’s Kurdish region is likely to put the fragile Erbil-Baghdad relationship under further strain. In this scenario, the disputed areas can easily become fuses for violent conflict between the Peshmerga and other local — or even state — forces.

A second factor that makes security sector reform both difficult and necessary, is the weakness of the Iraqi state security forces in terms of their fighting strength, morale, and equipment. True, Abadi has worked incessantly to rebuild the Iraqi state security apparatus after its collapse in 2014 with some notable successes. For example, according to a recent poll, 81 percent of Iraqis viewed the army as favorable in 2017, up from 59 percent in 2014. While the initial battles against the Islamic State at the end of 2014 were dominated by paramilitary forces, the battle for Mosul was fought and decided by state forces. But this battle was won at a high price. Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (Golden Division) of some 8,000 elite troops suffered an attrition rate of 40 percent. So on the one hand this division represents Abadi’s symbolic attempt to reassert government control and is broadly popular, but on the other hand it will require intensive re-formation after the nine-month battle for Mosul.

Such weaknesses mean that Iraq’s state security forces cannot afford direct confrontation with either Peshmerga forces or elements of the PMF on their own. Such a scenario could occur in the wake of the Kurdish referendum (planned for September), when the government seeks to re-assert control in cities liberated by the PMF, or when local armed groups would get into fights over the contested areas of northern Iraq.

Principles for Security Sector Reform

Where does this analysis lead us in terms of prospects for security sector reform in Iraq as part of a broader recovery strategy that helps avoid future conflict? It makes clear that conventional thinking arguing for full-scale capacity building of Iraq’s state security forces is inadequate. Instead, security sector reform in Iraq must be based on three key principles:

To begin with, accept a plurality of security provision. In the foreseeable future, there will be range of security organizations in Iraq capable of wielding “legitimate” violence and with variable relations and proximity to the state. Moves to tackle this situation, or centralize the security apparatus, in the short-term are likely to lead to violence. Yet, at the same time, the roles, relations and actions of these organizations need to be made more predictable. This means that a political strategy to negotiate meaningful mandates and establish some sort of a division of labor is essential.

By a political strategy we mean an interest-based approach that incentivizes key power brokers in command of coercive capabilities to choose peace over violence in the short-term, while bringing them more closely in the state’s security orbit in the medium-term. For example, irrespective of the roles and responsibilities of the respective forces, associations could be created at the individual level that promote loyalty to the state (e.g., free schooling for children of service members, military housing, direct salary payments).

Such an approach also means that PMF groups opting for integration into state security forces should only be allowed to do so on an individual basis. If the state can offer attractive individually-tailored integration packages, some PMF groups might in fact split between hardliners that prefer confrontation and moderates that prefer integration — weakening anti-state armed groups in the process. Finally, any division of labor must avoid creating power bases that enable entrenchment of particular security actors. For instance, the Badr Corps’ territorial control over nearly all of Diyala province is a recipe for further trouble if this remains unchallenged. At least urban areas should be brought under effective and direct control of state security forces.

In addition, security sector reform efforts should be focused on confidence building between the various security actors and with the population. Iraq’s security organizations have shown themselves capable in the fight against the Islamic State. Serious shortcomings remain, but given Iraq’s fragmented political scene, it is key to prioritize confidence building in a bid to avoid future violence. In the past, for example, flare ups in areas like Kirkuk have been peacefully resolved by the different security actors through negotiation. One confidence building strategy could be to create permanent dialogues on security threats, capabilities, and behavior at national level, local, or both.

Finally, incrementally separate force from politics as much as possible. The aim is to disassociate political parties and civilian institutions from armed groups and militant leaders that seek a political role. Possible initiatives that could make a practical difference are to redesign the indirect payment mechanism for the PMF, introducing legislation that maintains a strict separation between civilian and military positions of public authority, and perhaps even creating a “de-militarization” committee that is capable of validating and invalidating candidates that stand for elected office if it is insufficiently demonstrated that they have renounced their militancy. Experiences with the de-Ba’athification committee suggest such a committee will benefit from a clear sunset clause.

The reality of Iraq is that coercive capabilities are fragmented and part of an ongoing competition for political power dating back to 2003. Reinforcing one of the country’s security actors under the banner of security sector reform through a classic train and equip approach without taking the various political interests into account is likely to create trouble. Not addressing the current situation will have the same effect. A careful, political-savvy balancing act is required and the principles outlined provide a kind of pole. Any tightrope walkers around?


Renad Mansour is an academy fellow at Chatham House. An astute analyst of the politics and conflicts of Iraq, his prolific and insightful writings have been published with Carnegie Middle East, the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies and Chatham House, among others.

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael. He analyzes how political order affects the nature of (in)security in conflict-affected countries. He has written about many of today’s conflicts and advanced initiatives like the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.”

Image: Mstyslav Chernov, CC