Sectarianism and politicization of the Iraqi Army


Iraqi Army recruits undergo basic training in Habbaniyah. Photo by Bill Ardolino.

Najim Abed al Jabouri, the former mayor of Tal Afar and a current fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, warns of security forces, including whole Iraqi Army Divisions, maintaining loyalties to different political parties:

Both the military and the police remain heavily politicized. The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. Members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.

The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

More recently, the Iraqi Awakening Conference, a tribal-centric political party based in Anbar Province (where Sunni tribesmen, the so-called Sons of Iraq, turned against the insurgency during the surge) has gained influence over the Seventh Iraq Army Division, which was heavily involved in recruiting Sunnis to maintain security in 2006.

I witnessed an extreme example of this phenomenon in early 2007, when General Khalid Juad Khadim, the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the First Iraqi Army Division in Fallujah, fled and/or was relieved of his command after his links to the Mahdi Army and the Sadrist political movement were exposed. Khalid and several subordinates had been stealing pay and weapons and funneling them to militias back in Baghdad. In addition to fueling the carnage in the capital, his naked sectarian allegiances fatally disrupted the effectiveness of his brigade, which was undermanned from having its rolls padded with imaginary “ghost soldiers.” The jundi (enlisted soldiers) lived in fear of some of their corrupt officers, and many went without pay for weeks or months.

Once Khadim was named in a Times of London article, the Arab media picked up the story, and the publicity made him a liability. He fled, was officially “relieved,” and apparently survived to be eventually reassigned elsewhere within the Iraqi government due to his political connections, whereas at least one of his subordinates was arrested. Importantly, Khadim’s replacement turned the brigade around 180 degrees, played a crucial role in pacifying Fallujah, and subsequently helped shape the 2-1 IA into one of the best units in the Iraqi Army.

The story of Khadim is an extreme example, but it brings to mind two important points:

1. Improper allegiances can destroy the effectiveness of a unit, as well as present a potential flashpoint for violent expressions of political conflict.

2. The information about Khadim had been fed to the Times by frustrated US advisors who had few options in removing the corrupt but politically-connected leadership of the unit. It is unacceptable for US advisors to have such limited influence when dealing with Iraqi Army leaders who engage in clearly criminal or sectarian behavior.

The problems that al-Jabouri identifies in the current Iraqi Army are almost certainly less severe than the blind robbery that took place in the chaotic administrative and security morass of Fallujah and Baghdad circa January 2007. But they do raise serious issues about the perception and reality of the IA as a truly nationalist institution. Much more than other security forces, and certainly more than the civil services, the Army is the institution perhaps most honored and trusted by the Iraqi people. It is also essentially the showcase for any attempts to build a nationalist government. Accordingly, it deserves priority as Americans exert influence acquired by helping meet Iraq’s pressing security requirements, such as the future delivery of M1A1 Abrams battle tanks.

Some sectarianism in the army is inevitable and tolerable, as Iraqis are not going to drop regional and cultural allegiances overnight. I’m not well-sourced enough with current advisors to verify whether al Jabouri’s assessment of the current situation is as bad as he describes, and I can recall no recent examples of any Iraqi Army unit defying the orders of the Ministry of Defense. But some degree of this problem undoubtedly persists, and the warning is certainly relevant. US advice and leverage should pay special attention to truly nationalizing the force, for several reasons: the example the Army sets for other governmental entities, the Army’s inherent reliance on US security assistance, and the potentially catastrophic consequences if sectarian conflict regains traction.

Here are al Jabouri’s recommendations for improving the IA, and the security forces overall:

How can Iraq create a trustworthy security force? There are three lessons from the Tel Afar experience. First, remove the high-level officers in the Defense and Interior Ministries who are more loyal to their political parties than to Iraq. It does not matter if their replacements are Kurdish, Shiite, Sunni or Turkmen – the important thing is that they are professional and not puppets of religious or ethnic militias and parties.

Second, the government should diversify the police forces in mixed areas and move the Iraqi Army’s battalions from areas that are dominated by local political parties. This might require United States military support as intermediaries in politically sensitive areas like Kirkuk.

Last, the Iraqi government can do more to employ members of the Sons of Iraq, either in the security forces or with jobs in the provincial and national governments. Baghdad and Washington should also do more to jumpstart the economy in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which is a likely tinderbox for the next widespread insurgency.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.



Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram