Harnessing Iraq’s Deadly Array of Armed Groups After ISIL


Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace, on the challenges faced by a post-ISIL Iraq. 

Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that a moment eagerly awaited by the Iraqi people had finally arrived: victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Government forces had rooted out ISIL from its last pockets along the Syrian border, Abadi told the nation. The defeat of the terrorist group as an organized force was, he said, in large part a result of Iraqis’ “unity.”

Certainly, the fight against ISIL put virtually all elements in the fractious nation on the same side for a few years. The hope in some quarters has been that after the group’s defeat, the unity displayed in the counter-ISIL effort would transfer to Iraqi national politics and lead the armed groups that were formed to stop the extremists to disband. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the chances for such an outcome have withered as victory approached. Far from fostering national cohesion, tensions that have long threatened Iraq have resurfaced, and in some respects intensified, during the struggle with ISIL.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq’s fragile society of Arabs (Sunnis and Shia), Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and other diverse communities has continued to fragment, a trend papered over by the unified campaign against the brutal Islamic State. In the latest chapter, this communal competition is backed up by armed groups — vastly strengthened from their earlier incarnations by anti-ISIL involvement — pursuing rival agendas with support from international sponsors.

With insecurity and mutual distrust animating Iraq’s communities, no group will surrender the power of arms. Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, can rationally look to history for reasons to retain their own protective forces. This is why the idea that political accommodations can be addressed after security is established — an assumption underlying the 2007 “surge” and the fight against ISIL — is dangerously misguided. Support for demobilizing the armed groups will grow only after communal fears give way to a trustworthy political process.

This will require smart strategies that defuse local conflicts, make national politics more inclusive, and improve government services. Iraqi leaders and the international community will have to finally take action on the political, governance, and social breakdowns that fuel the seemingly perpetual cycle of violence and insecurity. Our experience mediating conflict on the ground through the United States Institute of Peace and its Iraqi partners has shown that fostering local dialogues and mediation can ease sectarian hostilities, prevent confrontation among armed groups, and provide a potential model for national reconciliation and resolving differences through politics rather than armed force. Dialogues can also bridge ruptured relations between citizens and the state. The international community and Iraqi leaders have greatly underestimated the value of these kinds of efforts.

For now, though, the tinder is plentiful for an explosion — or at least a slow and destructive burn — among the former allies in the fight against ISIL, and for a hardening of the Sunni Arab grievances that helped fuel the group’s initial success in Iraq.

Armed Groups and the Fallout From ISIL

A survey of present conditions makes clear that ISIL’s seizure of a third of Iraq in 2014 only deepened the militarization of its communities and accelerated the country’s territorial and social fragmentation.

Across the mixed northern provinces of Nineveh, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Kirkuk, a checkerboard has emerged of territory controlled by Baghdad’s military, Shia Popular Mobilization Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, armed Sunni tribes, and minority-group community-defense units, each split by factions and feuding leaders. These groups may have fought ISIL together in some configuration, but now they are jockeying for place and power, especially where political interests compete. Limited confrontations have already occurred between the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Diyala, Salahaddin, and Nineveh provinces.

The Kurdish Peshmerga

For the Kurds, despite episodes of internal fighting under the split leadership of two major parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — the Peshmerga have demonstrated the value of a well-organized armed force in protecting the Kurdish people.

Even leaving aside the Kurds’ almost century-long struggle for autonomy or independence, they have good reason to be committed to their armed fighters. The Peshmerga, with U.S. backing and air power, kept Saddam Hussein’s troops out of the region in the 1990s after the dictator’s genocidal attacks on Kurdish civilians. In 2014, the Peshmerga stood up to ISIL, halting its advance just outside the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital, Erbil. Then they pushed the extremists out of lands the regional government had long disputed with Baghdad. Now, although the Iraqi constitution enshrines the Peshmerga as part of the country’s overall defense system, the Kurds again view the force as a necessary defense against the Popular Mobilization Forces and Baghdad.

The Baghdad-Controlled Military

The Iraqi security forces’ record of entanglement in politics — particularly between Shia and Sunnis — has contributed repeatedly to distrust and insecurity. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in office, residents saw the military and federal police in the Sunni areas as an occupying arm of a Shia-led government and Iran. In many areas, military commanders wielded greater authority over security than elected governors and provincial councils. The results alienated the public and undermined a new, fragile democratic process and civilian institutions.

In 2012 and 2013, Sunnis in Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and Anbar provinces protested government exclusion, arrests, and mistreatment of detainees. After Baghdad officials labeled Sunnis “terrorists,” security forces killed hundreds of Sunni protesters in Hawija and Fallujah in 2013, and confrontations with the army escalated. This record of tension has led Sunnis to repeatedly attempt to form their own protective forces.

The military came into confrontation with the Peshmerga as well — as early as 2008 in the area of Khanaqin in Diyala province, and in 2013 with under the army’s new Tigris Operations Command in Kirkuk province. Both standoffs preceded ISIL, stemming instead from political disputes.

As for the Shia, trust in the Iraqi military was always qualified, despite dominating the armed forces after Hussein’s fall. Incorporating even a small number of Sunnis bred suspicion. The fears were inflamed by incidents such as ISIL gaining access to military databases it used to target off-duty Shia soldiers for execution.

Since 2014 under Abadi, the army has acted in a less sectarian and increasingly professional manner, demonstrated by its willingness to take heavier losses to avoid civilian casualties in Sunni cities while fighting ISIL. Still, it is not clear whether the Iraqi army will be able to grow as a national institution capable of protecting and winning the trust of all the country’s communities.

The Popular Mobilization Forces

Iraq’s Shia, like the Kurds, formed self-defense forces long before the ISIL assault. With Iranian support, the Shia established armed groups to harry Hussein and his dictatorial, Sunni-based regime. After his ouster, these groups and new ones fought al-Qaeda and other Sunni-linked elements as well as the U.S.-led coalition.

The Shia groups exploded in size and capacity after the Iraqi military collapsed in front of ISIL’s June 2014 offensive. To defend themselves from the Sunni extremists, Shia political and religious leaders combined several armed groups into the Popular Mobilization Forces, groups including the pre-2003 Badr Corps and pre-2014 Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Others were created in response to a Fatwa — a religious decree — issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and also joined the PMF. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who gave up his Jaish al-Mahdi militia under Iraqi and U.S. military pressure in 2008, formed new armed units under the PMF, as did the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which had separated from Badr.

Even though ISIL and related violence shattered Sunni communities, Shia viewed the group as a resurgent combination of Hussein’s former Sunni Baath Party and al-Qaeda, implicating Sunnis at large. Although they won’t say so in public, many of the sect’s leaders believe Shia dominance of the Iraqi state military isn’t enough: They also need a Shia force uniquely dedicated to fighting Sunni extremism and ensuring that Sunni political aspirations never threaten post-2003 Shia majority rule. (Iran shares both goals, and also sees the Popular Mobilization Forces as part of its plan to expand regional influence politically and practically, in particular by securing a land route to Syria through Iraq.)

While the Popular Mobilization Forces proved a critical supplement in the military’s fight against ISIL, it has emerged as a major source of Iraqi mistrust. Iranian-backed components frequently seem to pursue their own agenda despite formally reporting to the prime minister under a law that rendered the group a legal paramilitary unit. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey argues that Iran’s influence with the organization makes it the single greatest threat to Iraq’s independence. The PMF has set up offices or bases throughout Sunni areas, created or supported Sunni and minority armed groups, and established front lines in territories disputed by Baghdad and Erbil. For Kurds and Sunnis, the PMF represents an arm of the Shia and Iran even more threatening than the military under Maliki; its forces have a consciously sectarian identity and less discipline than the army. Lacking the buffer of the state, they are more influenced by Iran.

That creates policy quandaries for Abadi as he seeks to navigate his country’s divisions: Should he leave army units to provide security in Sunni areas freed from ISIL’s threat or occupation, risking that officers become entangled in local politics as they were under Maliki? Or should he pull out, leaving a security vacuum that the Popular Mobilization Forces could use to establish a permanent presence?

Sunni Tribal Mobilization Forces

While distrust and insecurity runs deep for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, their efforts at armed, collective security have a particularly complex history of insurgency intertwined with extremism.

After Sunnis lost their dominant position in 2003, elements from the deposed Baath party joined forces with ISIL’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, especially in cities with a large proportion of Sunnis, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Tal Afar and Hawija. But Sunni tribal leaders ultimately saw the extremists dismantling traditional power structures. With U.S. backing, they organized the now-legendary tribal militias called “Awakening Councils.”

The councils’ victory over foreign militants and local collaborators soon soured. The Baghdad government, rather than integrate the Sunni militias into Iraqi security institutions as promised, simply stopped paying them. Assassinations by both Sunni and Shia extremists had by 2014 slashed the council’s leadership ranks to only remnants. Today, Sunnis have formed some new armed groups under the Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces or what they call Tribal or National Mobilization Forces, but struggle to create an effective self-defense force, and their leaders have been excluded from decision-making in Baghdad. Some have even been charged with terrorism, and fled into exile. They strongly deny the charges, and view them as exclusionary tactics by the Shia. Sunni division and exclusion set the stage for the rise of ISIL, and, if unaddressed, will create fertile ground for the revival of ISIL or the emergence of other extremist groups.

Armed Groups of Iraq’s Minorities

ISIL’s fanatical assaults on minority groups, coupled with the government’s failure to protect them, prompted Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, and Shabak to establish community-defense units. Though less powerful, these groups represent another challenge to stabilizing Iraq, with multiple forces in each community loyal to various leaders. The Nineveh Plain Protection Units and Ezidkhan Protection Units, for example, were set up by the Christian and Yazidi communities, respectively, because they felt the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government either failed to protect them against ISIL or impeded their ability to arm and protect themselves.

Prospects for a More Peaceful Iraq

At this point, there is virtually no foreseeable scenario that would lead this profusion of groups to demobilize. What’s needed is a strategy to reduce violent conflict in the short term while setting the stage for peace by gradually addressing each community and group’s perceived need for an armed force.

Rebuilding Legitimate Security

One motive for maintaining armed groups is to seek — or avert — revenge in the aftermath of ISIL. Several Iraqi communities have addressed the issue of revenge by reaching local peace agreements through carefully constructed and mediated dialogue processes. Iraqi civil society organizations such as Sanad for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators, both supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace, have prevented or halted violent local feuds, saving lives and re-stabilizing communities.

For example, a dialogue between Sunni and Shia tribes in 2015 prevented a violent escalation of tensions and revenge killings over ISIL’s massacre of Shia cadets from the Camp Speicher military base the previous year near Tikrit. The resulting agreement, among other factors, ultimately enabled about 400,000 Sunnis to return to their homes in the area. That case built on an earlier success in 2007 in an area known to the U.S. military as the “Triangle of Death,” where nearly 3,500 U.S. troops fought — and 54 died — to end tribal warfare and the al-Qaeda attacks. A peace accord organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the facilitators network brought reconciliation and enduring stability to Mahmoudiya.

Similarly, this year, more than 100 Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs from Hawija signed an agreement long before their city was liberated from ISIL to forego tribal revenge and work with the formal state justice system, calculating that the outcome of revenge-based tribal law would be worse. The pact may enable the return of displaced people and help lay the foundation for longer-term security, social stability, and economic recovery. Such initiatives strengthen a community’s ability to resist violence and extremist recruitment by providing alternatives to resolve even some of the most intractable disputes. Iraq’s justice system is in urgent need of a capacity boost to absorb the volume of issues that will come its way.

Political Accommodation

 While dispute resolution can advance communal peace, it is no substitute for politics. However, the success of dialogue processes at the subnational level could serve as a model for national politics. In the long run, Iraqis need to move back to political action and away from force. A fatwa from al-Sistani could expedite demobilization of at least some of the Popular Mobilization Forces, but that’s unlikely unless he feels certain the Iraqi army can protect the Shia and the Shia-led government.

Iraq’s parliament and provincial councils should play essential roles in reaching more enduring political arrangements, and mediation from the United States, European partners, and the United Nations will be pivotal to overcome crippling political differences. A political process where leaders engage in dialogue that builds on the experience of recent years could help establish a common understanding on disputed issues that include sovereign powers, energy, revenue sharing, security, and how the federal system should function. Similar processes will be required at provincial and local levels of the political and governing structures for particularly diverse provinces such as Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh.

Iraq, of course, is by no means the master of its own political fate. Regional competitors Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and the United States have supported various communities, groups and governments at different times. Until these powers reach an agreement among themselves for regional security and stability, Iraq will remain a battleground, suffering the consequences of their proxy competition.

Strengthening State Institutions 

Getting the civilian government to do its job, especially providing security, is critical to reducing the perceived need for paramilitary groups. Abadi has moved in the right direction on the issue, as well as on governance and the economy.

The army, police and intelligence services need further professionalization and must build an ethos of accountability to all the country’s citizens. The government has to allow for meaningful representation of all Iraq’s diverse groups. Solutions like educational scholarships, job training, and employment opportunities could begin to peel away the young men who make up the bulk of the armed groups. But this has to be supplemented with programs that bridge the divide between communities and state institutions, in addition to the divide within and between communities.

Conclusion: Competing Agendas — With Weapons

Iraqis, who have found cohesion elusive since the state’s founding in 1932, were able to unite around the shared goal of defeating one of the world’s most brutal, backward, and lethal extremist groups. That unity cannot now be replicated to dial back the buildup of the armed groups that were strengthened in the fight against ISIL. Nonetheless, their collective victory over the extremists creates the opportunity to write a new chapter in Iraqi political life. Iraq has failed so far to form a national identity, but if its people come together around issues and core values, they could find a unity more functional than emotional.

It will be mostly up to Iraqis themselves to seize that chance, but they will need assistance. The United States and its allies were pulled back into Iraq to support the war against ISIL. If they want to avoid liberating Iraqi cities a third time, they need to remain actively engaged and do whatever is possible to help the Iraqis get it right this time.


Sarhang Hamasaeed is the director of Middle East programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has been involved in the Institute’s on the ground efforts at conflict mitigation and peacebuilding since 2011.

Image: U.S. Army/David Strayer