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Aug 12, 2014 | 00:02 GMT

7 mins read

Iraq's al-Maliki Tries to Garner Military and Militia Support

Iraq's al-Maliki Tries to Garner Military and Militia Support
(AMER AL-SAEDI/AFP/Getty Images)

The political crisis in Baghdad continued Aug. 11, with the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, refusing to cede power to his newly appointed replacement, Haider al-Abadi. Forces reportedly loyal to al-Maliki have deployed across Baghdad, seeking to close off and secure vital locations, such as the airport, parliament and the Green Zone. As the situation in Baghdad develops further, one of the key things to watch is the exact disposition of forces and their allegiance to political leadership. This raises the question of whether Iraq's military and militia forces will obey the new political leadership or remain loyal to al-Maliki even though he has been removed officially from his function as prime minister.

One of the key units that al-Maliki has sought to cultivate as a sort of Praetorian Guard is the 4,500-strong elite Counter-Terrorist Bureau, which reports directly to the prime minister's office. During the past 24 hours, forces from the Iraqi Counter-Terrorist Bureau have deployed across Baghdad to key points in the city, such as bridges, the international airport, the parliament and the Green Zone. It is not clear that the bureau will stand by al-Maliki at all costs, but its response to the deployment orders, and the fact that some of its personnel have displayed symbols of political support for a third term for al-Maliki, are notable. Outside of this force, al-Maliki allegedly has established a number of extra-constitutional security bodies with a chain of command leading directly to his personal office. These militias would, in the event of a conflict over hierarchy, be more likely to stand with al-Maliki.

Beyond the Counter-Terrorist Bureau, important army units that stand to play a crucial role in any potential coup are the units located in and around Baghdad. These include the Special Operations Units under the Ministry of Defense, which number around 4,500 men; the 6th motorized division, which is in charge of western Baghdad; the 11th infantry division, in charge of eastern Baghdad, with the most exposure to Shia; the 9th armored division, Iraq's only armored division, based out of the Taji military base north of Baghdad; and the 17th Commando Division, a clandestine unit that has been active in the southern districts. Baghdad also hosts three police divisions — the 1st, 2nd and 4th — that report directly to the interior minister (a position al-Maliki has held since 2010). Many formations from these units have already deployed across the country in response to recent Islamic State attacks and offensives, with the special operations forces operating in Baiji and elements of the 9th armored reportedly sighted in Anbar and Tikrit. These divisions represent the majority of the well-trained military forces in and around Baghdad, and any side wishing to obtain or remain in power will need to secure the loyalty or neutrality of these units.  


Iraq map

Al-Maliki's Military Reshuffling

During al-Maliki's tenure as prime minister, he has been able to gain influence among the Iraqi military command structure, both by changes to the structure and by appointing specific officers in the military hierarchy. Placing these officers — many of whose competence is suspect — in important command positions has better secured al-Maliki's position. His interference has been a significant factor in the degradation of the military's fighting ability, contributing greatly to the collapse of the Iraqi National Army in the north against a determined Islamic State. Additionally, the positioning of these supposedly loyal officers in charge of various units does not necessarily guarantee the loyalty of the entire unit.

One of the most important changes was the installment of al-Maliki's son as the chief of staff of the Iraqi army last month. Earlier, in May 2013, al-Maliki pushed through a major change in the higher levels of command when he replaced officers in several key positions. He appointed Gen. Qassim Atta as the director of the Office of Commander in Chief. At the same time, al-Maliki concentrated more power into the Baghdad Operations Command by dissolving the Kharkh and Risafa regional commands and integrating those in the Baghdad regional command.

Al-Maliki also appointed Lt. Gen. Abed al-Amir al-Shamari as the new commander of the Baghdad Operations Command while making the former commander of the Risafa regional command, Gen. Salahaddin Mustafa, the new ground forces commander. As part of these changes, al-Maliki also appointed Brig. Gen. Mohamed al-Karawi as chief of military intelligence. Apart from these rather critical functions in the highest levels of command of the Iraqi military and the Baghdad regional command, several divisions — including the 4th, 7th, 10th and 11th — also saw their commanders replaced. While the shifts in commanders do not necessarily grant al-Maliki full and unconditional support of these entire military formations, the appointment of officers could indicate where allegiances to al-Maliki lie within the Iraqi military.

On another front, a key concern for the Iraqi army — besides the domestic constituency — is the continuation of foreign support, especially when the army needs as much aid as it can get while it fights the Islamic State. While al-Maliki has pushed for closer defense ties with Iran and Russia, the United States remains a critical defense partner for Baghdad. Many arms contracts between Baghdad and Washington are in the works, and the United States also supplies spare parts and ammunition, such as Hellfire missiles, as well as military advisers and intelligence coordination through joint commands. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Aug. 11 that al-Maliki's move to abjure the political process could sever international support to Iraq. U.S.-trained Iraqi officers, especially frontline officers who are particularly concerned about the negative ramifications if the United States cuts off supplies to the Iraqi army, could take this into account in deciding whether they oppose or support al-Maliki.

Political Resistance to Al-Maliki

Al-Maliki also has to operate against considerable opposition from within his own Shiite political base. Clerics Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr are the best known, with the latter's Jaish al-Mahdi representing a considerable militia presence during the insurgency that occurred during the Iraq War. Al-Maliki will want to supplement any loyalty among military divisions with public and militia support to boost his own claims of legitimacy. Al-Sadr, besides being close to Iran, is a longtime competitor of al-Maliki's and remains unlikely to back him.

Hadi al-Amiri, a Shiite leader close to Iran and a competitor to both al-Sadr and al-Maliki, leads the Badr Organization and its associated militias. The organization's militant wing, the Badr Brigades, was largely incorporated into the Iraqi state security apparatus after U.S. troops withdrew in 2012. As recently as late July, al-Amiri's Badr Organization was adamant in its opposition to al-Maliki. However, a statement issued Aug. 11 noted al-Amiri's opposition to al-Abadi, the prime minister-designate. The Badr Organization's leader stated that he was not one of the Shiite leaders who signed a document supporting al-Abadi's nomination. Al-Amiri has not yet issued a statement in support of al-Maliki, and he could refrain from supporting either al-Maliki or the prime minister-designate, but if al-Maliki gains the support of the Badr Brigades it could result in strong, potentially violent divisions within the Iraqi Shiite landscape.

In addition to regular military forces and the Jaish al-Mahdi and Badr Brigades, the Iraqi government has been relying on Shiite militia groups — including the Promise Day Brigades, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah Brigades and smaller groups of volunteers organized in response to the Islamic State offensive. Al-Maliki's attempts to garner more support from these militias will be hampered by Iran, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (through the Quds Force) organizes and trains many of Iraq's Shiite militias. Tehran has already expressed its support for al-Abadi and is eager to prevent Iraq's Shiite core from fracturing internally. Many of these fighters, especially recent volunteers, have grown frustrated with the lack of payment, training and support from the central government under al-Maliki. These fighters are likely to prove more loyal to either their Iranian handlers or Iraq's Shiite religious leaders, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Stratfor has received indications that al-Sistani would be willing to issue a fatwa against supporting al-Maliki, with the potential for many militia fighters — as well as holdouts against al-Abadi in parliament and the military command — to drop their support for the outgoing prime minister. 

Stratfor will continue monitoring events in Iraq closely, particularly the moves made by the armed factions — whether military or militia — as well as foreign involvement, especially from Iran and the United States. Movement of military units and armed factions will be the best way to keep close track of the levels of support for either al-Maliki or his opposition.

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