Imagine if the Labor Party in Norway had its own armed group, which did not obey the state, but Jonas Gahr Støre? This is the situation in Iraq 15 years after the controversial invasion that plunged the country into protracted war and conflict.
- What exactly is a militia?
- Why are militias emerging in weak and conflict-ridden states like Iraq?
- How can regional powers like Iran use militias to achieve their own political goals?
- What implications do the militias have for Iraq’s future?
On March 20, 2003, US-led forces entered Iraq. In a short time, the country was occupied , and Saddam Hussein’s regime became history. The controversial invasion and subsequent occupation left deep scars – not only in Iraq, but in large parts of the Middle East. Although Hussein’s regime was to a large extent a terrorist empire, and very many Iraqis dreamed of an Iraq without him, there were probably few who foreshadowed what they had in store.
In 2006, according to vaultedwatches, the conflict also developed into a sectarian civil war between the country’s Shia and Sunni Muslim ethnic groups. And as if the country’s civilian population had not been through enough, the Islamic State (IS) declared its so-called caliphate on Iraqi and Syrian territory in June 2014. Although Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared his opposition to IS last year, they still have active cells and is constantly carrying out terrorist attacks in various cities in Iraq.
According to the Iraq Body Count, the war has killed between 180 and 200,000 civilians in the conflict since 2003, and rebuilding and stabilizing the country after the devastation of the war will be a long and demanding process . There is therefore much one can talk about when it comes to the legacy the invasion has left behind. In this article, we will take a closer look at one of the many consequences after 2003 – namely the emergence of militias.
2: What is a militia?
When it comes to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, regardless of whether it is Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan or Iraq, it is not only state actors that play a key role. Regional instability has promoted the military, political and social role of armed groups. These groups are often non-government doctors, but they can also be in the gray zone, ie partly government doctors. Among these, the militias have become very influential. Whether militias fall into the category of non-state or partially state is a difficult question, but they can be both. The term militia is both broad and difficult to define. There are in fact many different types of militias, which are very different from each other in a number of areas.
Militia usually operates within the territory of a weak and usually conflict-ridden state, while some also take part in transnational networks outside their own state borders. Several of the Iraqi Shiite militias also took part in operations for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria together with the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Militia can also cooperate with the state, as Iraqi militias have done in the fight against IS after 2014. They can also operate on behalf of an external state’s interests. For example, some Shiite militias are often counted as acting on behalf of Iran, not only in Iraq but also in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Militia is therefore not necessarily independent of the state, although of course someone is.
But militias are not just armed groups engaged in military activities. In fact, militias can also be social or political movements, which can be very popular in some communities where the state for various reasons does not reach. The Shiite militias in Iraq, for example, have gained legitimacy among the population by providing services in education, health, and protecting important religious buildings. Lebanese Hezbollah has also been very active on this front and has played an important role in providing social services to poor Shia Muslims in southern Lebanon. In this way, militias are not just armed groups that challenge or threaten state authority, they also often become a central and necessary player in societies where they meet certain needs.
In the parliamentary elections in Iraq on May 12, the prominent Fatah alliance, which is a coalition of Shiite militias , competes for power. These militias have been very effective in the fight against IS, and are at the same time religiously, ideologically, militarily and economically linked to both the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and the powerful neighboring state of Iran.
3: The “Militization” of Iraq
It was especially the weakened security situation after the invasion in 2003 that led to the militias growing to become key players in Iraq. Before American troops had reached Baghdad at all, gangs loyal to the Shiite cleric had. Muqtada al-Sadr has already taken over police stations, seized weapons and deepened the Shiite districts in eastern Baghdad for Sadr City. Iraq’s constitution bans armed groups that operate independently of Iraq’s own forces, and the militias therefore largely challenge the state’s monopoly on the exercise of power and authority. The fact that they are competing in this year’s parliamentary elections is also not legal, but no one has managed to stop them from doing so. How have they become so powerful?
First of all, it is wrong to believe that all these militias arose after 2003, even though that was when they became most important. Since the Ba’ath party came to power in 1968, there has been an active opposition in the country, and especially since Saddam Hussein became president in 1979. Since the political opposition was cracked down on, several of these groups fled to Iran, where they developed own armed forces. Among the already existing militias that were prominent after 2003, one found, for example, Kurdish militias and Shiite militias who returned after organizing themselves in exile in Iran since the beginning of the 1980s. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) had, among other things, its own militia, the Badr Brigades, which received military training and financial support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.