Apr 25, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

9 mins read

Iraq: The Fight Within the Fight Against the Islamic State

Iraq: The Fight Within the Fight Against the Islamic State
Forecast Highlights

  • As they cooperate in operations against the Islamic State, Iraq's various militias will also compete with one another for reclaimed territory.
  • Iraq's political and ethnic communities will use their associated militias' gains to boost their power in Baghdad.
  • The importance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State will give the Shiite community's pro-Iranian contingent more political influence.
  • The rivalry between Iranian- and Turkish-supported militias will expose regional competition playing out in Iraq.

In some ways, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq has masked the country's deep fragmentation. During their campaign against the jihadist group, Iraq's many ethnic and religious groups have often cooperated with one another. United by a desire to reclaim territory from the jihadist group, the Kurdish peshmerga, Shiite militias and Sunni tribal militias, along with the Iraqi government forces, have launched numerous joint operations. But competing goals among the groups, all of which desire more economic resources, territory and political influence, will bring them into conflict. Over the course of the operations themselves, longstanding tensions between the factions have already manifested. The struggle for influence and control among the groups will emerge even more fully as they overcome their common enemy.

Although Iraq's ethnic and religious communities exert their influence in the country in different ways, they share one important means in common: their militias. In Iraq, a claim to territory often translates to a claim to power. To a great extent, this is a symptom of the weakness of the Iraqi security forces. Numbering under 150,000 in front-line forces, Iraq's military suffers from poor leadership and logistics, dismal salaries and weak morale. As a result, militias in Iraq have risen to prominence, throwing much-needed support behind the Iraqi security forces. At the same time, the militias come with their own agendas. 

Kurdish Demands

The Kurdish peshmerga offer the most notable example of this trend. The peshmerga forces have served a vital role in the fight against the Islamic State, not only staving off attacks and territorial advances but also holding territory after the Iraqi security forces retreated. The Kurds now control territory in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, areas they have long claimed but that lie beyond Kurdistan Regional Government borders. The most contentious of these areas is Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders have called the Kurdish Jerusalem. Since taking Kirkuk in 2014, the Kurds have used their control of the area's oil fields to great advantage, exporting oil to various foreign markets.

Overall, the territories the Kurds have seized are multiethnic. But they include strong Kurdish populations, and Arbil aspires to bring parts of the territories under official Kurdish rule. Short of achieving that goal, the Kurds can still use their control of the region to exact political concessions from Baghdad. They may demand that the government reach a revenue-sharing agreement with Iraqi Kurdistan, allow the Kurds to independently export oil or increase Kurdish ministerial representation. Currently, three Kurdish ministers hold positions in the Cabinet, but the Kurds, who have demanded 20 percent of Iraq's ministerial positions, are concerned that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's proposed reforms will cost them posts. Having secured more territory in their operations against the Islamic State, the Kurds will have access to more resources and thus more political power in Baghdad.

Even though Baghdad opposes Kurdish command of these areas, for now the Iraqi security forces are spread too thin to reclaim the territory by force. Instead, Iraq's Shiite militias have been occupying and, increasingly, clashing with the Kurdish peshmerga in these areas. This casts significant doubt on whether the two factions could cooperate in larger operations such as the fight for Mosul, which could require more than 40,000 front-line soldiers.

The peshmerga will play an important role in the Mosul campaign. But Kurdish and Iraqi officials have insisted that the forces will not enter the city itself. Rather, the peshmerga are tasked with reclaiming surrounding territory, acting as a support force to the north and east of Mosul to prevent Islamic State fighters from scattering elsewhere. For Baghdad, the prospect of Kurdish forces in Mosul is worrisome because it could enable them to gain even more ground in Iraq. Indeed, Mosul offers the Kurds an attractive opportunity. They have always had a close relationship with the city's Arab population, and Kurdish forces could benefit from access to the important infrastructure in Mosul, which boasts one of Iraq's major airports. Perhaps more compelling, the land near Mosul is arable (unlike mountainous Iraqi Kurdistan) and could provide the Kurds greater food security.

In reality, though, this would be a tall order for the Kurds. As it stands, they are already struggling to pay as many as 160,000 fighters to secure the entire Kurdish region. To take and occupy Mosul, Kurdish forces would have to contend first with the Islamic State and then with the Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias that would likely challenge Kurdish control. Still, if the Mosul operation draws in more Kurdish forces than anticipated, there will likely be clashes between peshmerga and Shiite militia forces fighting against their expansion.

Rising Shiite Influence 

The Shiite militias have played a key role in assisting the Iraqi security forces to retake territory from the Islamic State, particularly in Baghdad, Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah. Initially formed in response to the marginalization of Iraq's Shiite community, the militias were trained and supported solely by Iran. Despite recent attempts to bring the militias under the direction of the Iraqi government, Iran still trains and finances the most of the forces. After Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, issued a fatwa in June 2014 to establish an Iraqi paramilitary force, Iraq's Ministry of the Interior absorbed dozens of Shiite popular mobilization units under the Popular Mobilization Forces. Even so, militia leaders dominate the force: Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the head of the militant group Kataib Hezbollah, serves as its deputy chair. Although Iraq's 2016 budget allocated $2 billion to the mobilization units, the bulk of the forces' support still comes from Iran.

Iran directly supports a substantial majority of the approximately 110,000 members in the people's mobilization units. In fact, Tehran uses its influence over the military units to pursue its own political objectives in Iraq. Many Shiite militias are under the direct command of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Iranian military. Furthermore, some of Iraq's most effective militias — Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization and Kataib Hezbollah — are all aligned with and receive training and financing from Tehran. By relying on these militias, the Iraqi security forces have effectively depended on Iranian support in their operations against the Islamic State.

But not all Shiite forces are in step with Tehran. Though the Shiite community is the most influential in Iraqi politics and is the most represented within the Iraqi security forces, it is also rife with divisions. With over 20,000 members, the Peace Brigades (headed by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr) operate more or less independently of Iran and have even criticized its influence, as has al-Sistani. Now Iran seeks to bring dissenting Shiite forces into its fold. To consolidate Iraqi Shiites under Tehran's aegis, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked Hezbollah's secretary-general to call a meeting in Lebanon during the week of April 11 to encourage greater cooperation between Shiite militias. Among those invited were Peace Brigades leader al-Sadr, a representative for al-Sistani, and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Shiite militia gains in operations against the Islamic State will impart further political power to pro-Iranian political blocs in Baghdad, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or certain components of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.

The Role of Sunni Militias

Sunni militias lack the training and supplies of the Kurdish and Shiite factions, but they nevertheless play a key role in fighting the Islamic State. In particular, Sunni militias will be instrumental in reclaiming and holding Sunni-populated areas, where they are less likely than Iraqi security forces to stir up resentment on the part of local populations. Moreover, Sunni participation helps combat anti-government sentiment among Iraqi Sunnis that could otherwise prompt some to join the Islamic State. As for the militias themselves, they are joining the battle primarily to diminish the presence of Shiite militias. In Anbar province, the two groups collaborated successfully. But more disagreements could arise between them in Mosul and Fallujah because of a pervasive perception among Shiites that the Sunni communities in those cities invited the Islamic State there in the first place. This idea may lead the already heavy-handed Shiite militias to be less discriminating in these areas, which could incite conflict with their Sunni counterparts.

But there are limits on the role that the Sunni militias will play. For one thing, they will be reluctant to relinquish any territory to the Iraqi state. Following Saddam Hussein's overthrow, Sunnis were virtually excluded from political and military participation in Iraq's debaathification. In light of their disenfranchisement, the Sunnis' main goals today include wider government representation and protection from Shiite militia persecution. Above all, the Sunnis want Baghdad to deliver on its promise to integrate Sunni militias into the country's military forces. Although al-Abadi persuaded his Cabinet to sign off on this proposal in February 2015, Iraq's Shiite-dominated parliament opposes arming Sunni fighters.

In exchange for participating in the campaign against the Islamic State, the Sunni militias will demand political concessions. Throughout his administration, Iraq's prime minister has generally abided by a tacit arrangement that apportions Iraq's top political posts among the country's religious and ethnic groups. But recent popular demands for a new, technocratic government have all but eclipsed Iraq's other political issues. Not long ago, Iraq's legislature voted the speaker, a Sunni, out of his post. Many Sunnis now contend that he should remain in his position. To prevent their further marginalization in Iraq's political system, the Sunnis will call for greater representation in government and insist, among other demands, that a Sunni continue to fill the post of defense minister.

As the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite militias fight the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi security forces, they will be simultaneously vying against one another. More than just sectarian rivalries, this competition reflects an international struggle for influence in Iraq. Turkey's military installations in northern Iraq, which Ankara claims exist to support the Sunni Popular Mobilization Forces and peshmerga fighters, have raised suspicions among Iraq's Shiites. Baghdad — as well as Tehran — is concerned that Turkey is aiding the militias to increase its foothold in northern Iraq. Once the Islamic State has been defeated and Iraq's many local and regional interests can turn their attentions to their underlying agendas, the real fight for Iraq will begin.

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