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Iraq: Sectarian Violence Highlights Increasing Power Of Militias

  • Charles Recknagel

Imam Al-Mahdi Army fighters (file photo) (AFP) As Iraq this week marked the third anniversary of the start of the U.S. invasion on March 19-20, some Iraqi leaders are saying the biggest security threat today is not the insurgency but the possibility of civil war. Many other Iraqi and U.S. officials say that threat is exaggerated. But the debate has focused new attention on the many sectarian-based militias in Iraq, some of which appear to be waging tit-for-tat attacks on rival groups.

PRAGUE, March 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) – The starkest warnings of civil war have come from Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former interim prime minister.

"We do not have a clear definition of what a civil war is," he told Reuters on March 21. "It varies from one place to another, but if we do not avert and reverse where we are now, then of course, we will go into much more serious [situation], into a civil strife."

That assessment is disputed by others.

"Listen, we all recognize that there is violence [in Iraq], that there is sectarian violence, but the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war," U.S. President George W. Bush said later the same day. "A couple of indicators are that the army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united and, as [U.S. commander in Iraq] General [George] Casey pointed out, they did, arguably, a good job."

Post-Samarra Sectarian Violence

The debate over civil war stems largely from the waves of tit-for-tat sectarian killings that followed the February 22 bombing of a key Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. The violence claimed some 500 lives before subsiding this month.

Iraqi Sunni groups have accused the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of organizing the reprisals. Militia leaders denied those charges.
"In order for a representative government to function, it must have a monopoly on power,A and you are having these militia groups undermine that authority. There is one approach that you simply disband the militias, and while that might be possible for some of them, I don't think it is possible for all the militia elements." -- Matthew Sherman


Still, many analysts say the events highlight the fragility of Iraq's political order -- one where most of the large parties participating in the government are sectarian-based and most have armed wings.

Matthew Sherman was an adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 until early this year. During that time, he worked closely with Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Sherman said the violence following the Samarra attack should be seen as part of a larger pattern of militia reprisals that began under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-based regime.

"Right after the first [1991] Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set up the Fedayeen, which was an entity that was designed to suppress the Shi'a uprising that was going on throughout the country," he said. "And I think what you are seeing right now is that a number of these Shi'a militias are actually now going back out and trying to target these individuals, in a sense as a defensive measure, to make sure they aren't persecuted again, or they aren't targeted again, by Sunni groups. So, in a sense it is a much larger-scale tit-for-tat and we are just seeing this become much more evident within recent days."

Militias In Government

Sherman said that one of the most troubling developments today is that Shi'ite militia members have entered the new Iraqi army and police force "en masse" with the changeover to a Shi'ite-led government.

He said the Badr Corps, the armed wing of the Shi'ite-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), "has slowly gained virtual control of the Interior Ministry."

In November, U.S. soldiers discovered a secret prison run by police officers associated with the Badr Corps. Some 170 people had been held there and some of these were tortured.

The Iraqi Army on parade (epa)

Sherman said that, similarly, the Al-Mahdi Army "has gained significant influence over chiefs of police and governors' offices in the south of the country."

Sunni-based groups and even some parties that are non-sectarian-based also have armed wings.

"The Iraqi Communist Party, the National Dialogue Council, have their own militia groups," Sherman noted. "A lot of the Sunni political parties that you are seeing that are coming on board have their own militia wing. Now, it's just not as strong, or as many people, as Badr, or [Kurdish] peshmerga or Jaysh Al-Mahdi [Army]."

Sherman said there is no official count of the total number of armed men in all these militias. But in 2004, when the Interior Ministry held negotiations with the nine major groups, they represented "tens of thousands of armed men."

Neutralizing The Militias

The question now is what to do with Iraq's unofficial armies when, as Sherman said, there is no political will for doing so.

"In order for a representative government to function, it must have a monopoly on power," he said. "And you are having these militia groups undermine that authority. There is one approach that you simply disband the militias, and while that might be possible for some of them, I don't think it is possible for all the militia elements."

Sherman said the best approach is to keep bringing the militiamen into the security forces but in a way that clearly identifies their allegiances. That would balance the numbers from each group and help defuse rival groups' fears that they being outflanked.

He suggested that militiamen also could be absorbed by reviving units like the Hussein-era Shrine Police Force. He said this would enable Sunni and Shi'ite units to guard their own respective religious sites and possibly deter attacks such as the one in Samarra.

But Sherman said none of this can begin until government ministers are prevented from using their positions to build fiefdoms staffed by their own militant groups.

According to Sherman, the test for the next government -- still to be formed more than three months since Iraq's legislative elections –- will be whether it can make the militias subservient to the national interest. Until that happens, he warned, there will no stability in Iraq.
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