A State with Four Armies: How to Deal with the Case of Iraq

4 Armies

At the start of October, Iraqis took to the streets holding photos of a man who had just been demoted despite his impressive track record as civil servant and military officer. While the transfer of Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi from his job as deputy commander of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces to a desk job at the Ministry tells only part of the story of the anti-corruption protests that have rocked the country, his name — and fate — have become a rallying cry.

Theories abound as to why he was dismissed. Some suggest he was demoted because he disrupted corruption within the elite Counter Terrorism Service, as well as between senior counter-terrorism commanders and other security officials. Others insist his transfer owed more to a rivalry between the largely Iran-tied Popular Mobilization Forces and his own service. While the details of his demotion may never become public, the debate over his transfer highlights a few key features of the forces that make up Iraq’s complex national security architecture: weak capability, significant individual autonomy, fragmentation and differing constituencies, and foreign influence.



How can these problems best be addressed? Security sector development in Iraq should proceed in lockstep with political reform, as the two are related. Without political change, meaningful security sector development won’t be possible, and without security sector development, Iraqi politics will remain volatile and vulnerable to the use of coercion and violence. In this context, Iraq and its international partners should accept a multipolar security architecture for quite some time to come, but work on the regulation, roles, and responsibilities as well as confidence between Iraq’s different defense forces. To build its case, this article considers Iraq’s two traditional military institutions, analyzes the country’s two alternative military forces and their development, and closes by suggesting a range of options for security sector development. The article benefited from two research visits to Iraq in 2019 made possible by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Military Forces in Iraq: Past and Present

Iraq has four major defense forces of varying sizes and capabilities: the Counter Terrorism Service, the Iraqi Army, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga. We leave forces reporting to the Ministry of the Interior, like the federal police, out of this account given their focus on law and order as opposed to national security.

The Iraqi Army and Counter Terrorism Service are easily recognizable as the traditional armed forces that most countries possess. The Iraqi Army is by far the largest of these four forces in both manpower and budget (300,000 soldiers and approximately $17.3 billion in 2019). The Counter Terrorism Service is only a division-sized military unit, but it is highly competent, it is considered closely aligned with U.S. interests, and it performed well in the fight against the Islamic State. Its 10,000–12,000 personnel and $800 million budget (2018–2019) fall directly under the prime minister. The Popular Mobilization Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga are alternative military forces with a legal status, but with origins outside the formal state.

In terms of manpower, the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga are roughly comparable (respectively 150,000 and 200,000 fighters), but the Popular Mobilization Forces are more than twice as rich as their Kurdish counterparts, with a budget of $2.16 billion as opposed to $800 million. Whereas the Popular Mobilization Forces, like the Counter Terrorism Service, report directly to the prime minister, the Kurdish Peshmerga report to the Kurdistan Regional Government instead of the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, at least on paper. These parallel forces form a multipolar security military architecture that inevitably raises the question how security sector development in Iraq can be managed to respond better to the country’s myriad political and security problems.

Although the present situation owes much to Iraq’s violent evolution as a political entity after the U.S. invasion of 2003, the country’s state and society have a tortuous relationship with their armed forces that extends further back in history. For example, Iraq has the doubtful honor of having hosted the region’s first post-colonial military coup in 1936. Yet, it was only in the 1980s that a boom-bust cycle of military performance started. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 created an apparently formidable military apparatus in Iraq that nevertheless proved unable to break through the tenacious Iranian resistance.

By 1988, the Iraqi Army stood at about a million effective forces, but under a dictatorship with a dysfunctional economy, serious efforts at demobilization were out of the question. Baghdad’s attempt to keep  the army usefully employed was one factor in the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, which led to both spectacular defeat in the first Gulf War and over a decade of international sanctions, during which security partly devolved to tribal forces and militias. It was also in this period that the Peshmerga transformed from guerrilla bands into the semi-formal paramilitary force of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi Army as it existed was routed and disbanded during and after the 2003 Iraq War through a mix of losses, defections, and de-Ba’athification. The Iraqi army that was rebuilt during the second half of the 2000s subsequently suffered catastrophic disintegration in the face of the onslaught of the Islamic State in 2014, in part due to corruption and poor leadership.

Iraq’s Alternative Military Forces: Peshmerga and Popular Mobilization Forces

Given the fraught history of Iraq’s regular military forces, it is no surprise that alternative formations, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Peshmerga, came into existence. These forces are best regarded as reactions to the repeated inadequacy of the Iraqi Army to provide security to major population groups, which is itself a function of Iraq’s violent history of political rule.

The creation of the Peshmerga was a clear response to Saddam Hussein’s repression of Iraq’s Kurds. When the 1991 no-fly zone that was imposed after the Gulf War, it provided the Kurds with a respite from regime repression. They lost no time transforming their Peshmerga guerrilla units into light infantry forces tasked with ensuring the internal and external security of Iraq´s Kurdish regions. It is important to note here that the Peshmerga are simultaneously an expression of several competing identities: a unified Kurdish separatism, a divided force loyal to two political parties, and the praetorian guards of leading members of the Barzani and Talabani families. For example, the Peshmerga are technically under the command of the Ministry of Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government, but in reality, forces belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan parties each report to their respective political organizations. Further, each party-aligned Peshmerga force has some links to foreign interests in the region: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-aligned Peshmerga are closer to Iran, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga have links to Turkey.

Our interviews in Sulaimaniyah this spring suggest that the Peshmerga’s creditable battlefield performance against the Islamic State has made their forces heroes in the eyes of many Iraqi Kurds, while at the same time many also resent the Peshmerga’s political role in suppressing popular protests across Kurdistan. Paradoxically, these forces have become the defenders of both external Kurdish political aspirations and of the Kurdish party-political status quo. Nevertheless, as a military force, the Peshmerga remain weak due to internal divisions as well as the absence of heavy weaponry and air assets, as was clear in October 2017, when the Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilization Forces retook the Kirkuk area without a serious fight.

The Popular Mobilization Forces are a more recent phenomenon related to both the historical oppression of the Shi’a by the Iraqi security forces under Saddam Hussein and the failure of the Iraqi Army against the Islamic State. While multi-confessional on paper, these fighters mostly hail from the Shi’a south of Iraq, and some of the organization’s key formations are tied to Iran, infusing it with a clear Shi’a religious militancy. In a sense, it echoes the shift toward Shi’a rule of Arab Iraq since 2003. Its Iranian linkages have also made the Popular Mobilization Forces a geopolitical and domestic counterweight to the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service and Iraqi Army, especially in the context of rising tensions between the United States and Iran following the U.S. withdrawal from its nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018.

In interviews in Baghdad, Hilla, and Karbala this fall, commanders of the Popular Mobilization Forces said they view the organization as an upgraded version of the Iraqi Army. Interviewees did not consider this problematic but rather as an asset given the problems of morale, corruption, and recovery that they argued the Iraqi Army continues to face. The Popular Mobilization Forces consider themselves less plagued by these issues and endowed with superior morale due to their religiously derived esprit de corps. But the force is not without its issues. In interviews, force commanders told us they saw two problems with the organization. First, ongoing regularization of the Popular Mobilization Forces risks the organization becoming more and more like the army, weighed down by problems of corruption and the like, and with fighters who see fighting as a job with a salary rather than a religious duty. The antidote, according to senior leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces, is the newly established directorate for religious doctrine within the organization (presumably making it even more Shi’a in nature). Second, the Popular Mobilization Forces have a complicated relationship with armed groups such as Asaib ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hizballah, and Haraket al-Nujaba that have fighters both inside and outside the organization. Those outside the force engage in activities, such as fighting in Syria, that are outside the mission of the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Iraq’s Armies: To Each His Own

Taken as a whole, Iraq’s traditional army is being rebuilt while it continues to suffer from low morale, corruption, and weak capability. The country’s partisan forces — the Kurdish Peshmerga and Popular Mobilization Forces — are highly motivated, but with strategic agendas that are partisan as well as partially tied to Iranian and Turkish influences and thus partly at odds with the Iraqi state. The special forces, which are capable, motivated, and aligned with the state, remain small and tied to the United States. On top of this, these forces have appreciable operational autonomy despite the existence of formal coordination structures.

The result is disunity of purpose, inadequate command and control, and major internal and external security risks. For example, in August 2018, Iraq’s prime minister ordered the 30th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces to leave the Ninevah Plains. The unit involved refused to comply and remained stationed at the eastern edge of Mosul, seizing property, looting, intimidating the local population, and taxing trade on the Mosul-Erbil highway. No Iraqi Army, Counter Terrorism Service, or Peshmerga unit showed up to enforce the prime minister’s writ because this would have directly escalated tensions between the intervening security force and the Popular Mobilization Forces more broadly. In a similar vein, the absence of coordination between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the border zone of the disputed territories creates a permissive space for Islamic State cells to operate and terrorize the local population. Finally, the lack of state control over Kataib Hizballah (a group of the Popular Mobilization Forces) enabled it to launch drones against Saudi oil pumping facilities in May 2019, exposing Iraq to a diplomatic crisis or even foreign intervention.

While these are only examples, the more profound consequences of the present state of Iraq’s security architecture include continued use of coercion as a political negotiation tool, promotion of ongoing Sunni exclusion, and entrenchment of existing power structures such as the political duopoly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

How to Deal with Iraq’s Plural Security Architecture

It is clear that Iraq’s security conundrum must be addressed — but how? The Iraqi government and international partners should openly acknowledge that working toward a monopoly of the traditional army and police on the domestic use of force is neither feasible nor desirable at present since such control by some would be seen as a threat by others. As a result, the Weberian idea of a single center of coercive authority will have to be discarded in Iraq, at least for the short to medium term. Iraq’s multiple systems of authority and rule should serve as the starting point for military reform. Correct facilitation and negotiation of their roles and interests will be key to success. Because of this complex web of relationships between authority and military force, a simple train-equip-professionalize approach will not do; international partners must be more politically aware. Practically, this means that Iraq will feature a plural security landscape for the foreseeable future. The focus should now become increasing the mutual confidence between Iraq’s four military forces discussed here, creating greater clarity on roles and responsibilities, and effectively regulating them. Political reform should proceed in lockstep with military reform.

In the near term, Iraq’s security architecture should be streamlined to minimize national security risks and maximize local safety. This means reducing autonomy of these forces to a level that makes independent external operations more difficult while still maintaining local security provision functions. Practically, both Popular Mobilization Forces and Peshmerga troop numbers could be reduced to the 50,000 to 60,000 range. Reductions could be incentivized at the individual level through lifetime pensions for demobilized forces, and at the organizational level by creating a national security decision-making structure that gives each force a seat at the table based on a clear set of authorities. In addition, a carefully vetted Sunni national guard, or well-trained, Sunni-majority regiments in the Iraqi Army, should be created to address the profound sense of alienation and marginalization, based on sect and religion, from the state in Sunni Iraq. To prevent inter-force strife, the Iraqi Army must work toward achieving force dominance and enjoy unequivocal legal command in all operational theaters, leaving the present strategic hierarchy more fragmented for the time being. Such organizational measures will become more feasible when tied to political reform that either turns Iraq into a true federation, or that increases the accountability and reduces the fragmentation of its political parties. This could be done by shrinking the size of Iraq’s electoral districts, or by introducing a threshold for political parties to enter parliament. In other words, political and military reform will need to be negotiated and advanced as a package.

All of this will have to wait, however, until tensions between the United States and Iran decrease to a more manageable level. While sitting out the wait, time and energy can be devoted to readying each of Iraq’s individual forces for military reform to the extent possible. In some cases, this requires political mediation: The political crisis within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party must be resolved for Peshmerga reform to become possible. In other cases, it requires political intervention: for example, separating the Popular Mobilization Forces more clearly from Iranian influences by paying salaries directly from the Iraqi treasury to fighters, by making integrated training with the Iraqi Army mandatory, and by ensuring greater balance between neutral and pro-Iran staff in the leadership of the force. Also, the Counter Terrorism Service could serve as a nucleus upon which the Iraqi Army could be rebuilt. Such an approach might also serve as a radical way of dealing with the corruption issues that have beset the Ministry of Defense. In all cases, building confidence and developing functional civil-military relations across forces will be essential. This points to the need for an extensive leadership program for senior commanders and politicians from these four forces as a worthwhile short-term investment. It is here, rather than in the area of technical capacity-building alone, that support from the United States, the United Nations, and European Union could be brought to bear.

Looking Ahead

In the longer term, further military integration requires the coming of age of a revitalized institutional structure for ruling Iraq and more mature behavior by Iraqi political players. Likewise, the country also needs social reconstruction of Sunni communities, and the emergence of a more stable relationship between competing Shi’a and Kurdish parties that will reduce the need to resort to violence. Based on comparative cases, such developments will take decades. Until then, military reform efforts, like the recent decree ordering full integration of the Popular Mobilization Forces into the state security apparatus, are best seen as a mix of muddling through existing domestic interests and as a balancing act between competing geopolitical interests.



Dr. Sardar Aziz is currently a senior adviser to the Kurdistan Parliament in Iraq. His areas of research include civil-military relations, Middle East political economy, and Kurdish politics. He publishes work in Kurdish as well as English.

Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit. His research focuses on the political economy of conflict in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Palestine/Israel and Lebanon) in the context of Iranian, Turkish, and Saudi foreign policy.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rory Featherston)