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Aug 31, 2010 | 12:06 GMT

26 mins read

Iraq's Security Forces After the U.S. Withdrawal

Click here to download a PDF of this report U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver a major speech on Iraq on Aug. 31, just a week after the U.S. military announced that fewer than 50,000 American troops now remain in Iraq in a residual force that will transition to Operation New Dawn beginning Sept. 1. This mission will see U.S. military personnel providing advice, training and assistance to Iraqi security forces (according to the current status of forces agreement) until all U.S. troops have withdrawn by Dec. 31, 2011. Prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, the old Iraqi military was the guarantor of unity in the ethnically and religiously divided Arab state. Since 2003, the new Iraqi military has mirrored the divisions of the Iraqi state, however. Despite these divisions, Iraqi security forces have managed to handle an increasing share of responsibility for providing security in the country. But the impending total U.S. withdrawal will place sole responsibility for the Iraqi state's security upon Iraqi forces. Even by optimistic estimates, Iraqi forces are not expected to be independently capable of external and territorial defense missions until late in the decade. The future ability of the Iraqi armed forces to maintain domestic security in Iraq is critical to Washington's bid to ensure that Iran does not step into the vacuum. Whether the military can become a cohesive force after the U.S. withdrawal unaffected by changes in government as in most countries — and as in Iraq prior to 2003 — remains to be seen. An examination of the Iraqi state since 2003 and the Iraqi military both before and after 2003 provides insights into how events in this regard are likely to unfold.

The Iraqi State Since 2003

Like the Iraqi security apparatus, the post-Baathist Iraqi state remains a work in progress. Deep ethnic and sectarian fault lines mark Iraq's new political structures, fault lines that widened into chasms after the spring 2003 U.S. invasion. The new Iraqi polity was designed as a republic that distributes power along ethnic and sectarian lines. Though the state has come a long way from the days when both Sunni and Shiite militants waged insurgencies with backing from their respective regional patrons, the calm of the past two to three years remains fragile (and was achieved in great part by U.S. political and military weight). Its fate without the heft of the American political and military focus of recent years is uncertain, and the current modicum of political and ethno-sectarian stability remains to be consolidated. Political uncertainty rising from the need for a new power-sharing arrangement in the post-Baathist state has raised doubts about whether this calm will persist. The previous power-sharing arrangement emerged after Iraq's first parliamentary elections under the new constitution in December 2005. This understanding has all but disappeared in light of the second parliamentary elections on March 7, 2010. Unlike in 2005 when they largely boycotted the election, Iraqi Sunnis participated in the 2010 election in substantial numbers. The 2005 Sunni boycott meant the Shia and Kurds dominated the state and the outgoing government. The Sunni buy-in to the political system arose as part of a complex political deal with then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus in 2007 — meaning Sunnis will play a much larger role in the new government. In addition to this Sunni participation, Iraq's Shiite community has seen a significant political realignment in which two parallel blocs have emerged. These shifts have had a direct impact on the outcome of the March 7 elections, when four key political blocs won a majority of the 325 seats in the unicameral Iraqi legislature. The Shiite vote split between outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, which took 89 seats, and its more pro-Iranian rival, the Iraqi National Alliance, winning 70 seats. Meanwhile, the Kurds managed to unite into one bloc after the election, taking 57 seats. Significantly, however, the non-sectarian al-Iraqiya bloc of former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi won a narrow first place with 91 seats. It garnered most of the Sunni vote, as well as a sizable share in ethnically mixed — and even Shiite-majority — areas. This outcome means the Shiite majority cannot dominate the political system as it has since 2005 and requires the two rival blocs to merge — a work in progress as of the publication of this report. It also means the Sunnis are well positioned to demand a significant share of control over Iraq's security forces, something the Shia and their Iranian patrons are unprepared to permit. The Sunni re-entry into the political mainstream is also aggravating tensions between the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government and the central government given longstanding Sunni-Kurdish tensions over land and energy resources in northern Iraq. And this means that despite relatively peaceful elections in March, the Iraqi state finds itself in an extraordinarily precarious position. The country is experiencing a struggle not only to form a new government but also to mold the Iraqi state itself to guarantee each side's own long-term interests. Iraq's security forces will be at the heart of this complex struggle. Understanding what role these forces will play in the future calls for looking at its past.

The Iraqi Military Before 2003

Iraq's military was born of the British Empire's need to secure the Mesopotamian territories London seized from the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Initially consisting of a few thousand men under arms, the Iraqi forces were designed to help British forces maintain domestic security, an especially urgent task given a 1920 Iraqi revolt against British rule. During the course of the next two decades, the modern Iraqi army slowly began taking shape. The army never exceeded 7,500 troops per a limit set by the British. Even though the British agreed to recognize a sovereign Iraq in 1932, London retained control over Iraqi security, stipulating that Iraqi military personnel seeking training could only go to the United Kingdom, that only British officers train Iraqi troops in Iraq and that Iraqi forces could only acquire British weaponry. Running parallel to this military evolution, Iraq's Sunni minority acquired disproportionate political influence, primarily because both the monarchy and the Ottoman-trained civilian bureaucrats were of Sunni background. What further allowed the Sunnis to dominate Iraq was the fact that the Shia, who only became a majority in Iraq in the mid-19th century, had been seen by the Ottomans as a fifth column of the Persians and relegated to junior positions in the state. Consequently, the Shia did not become communally organized until the 1950s. Furthermore, the Kurds very early confronted the British in pursuit of an independent Kurdish state. This Sunni domination eventually would spill over into the military, too. Under close British watch, the Iraqi military developed into the country's most durable institution. By comparison, the Iraqi polity remained weak. Iraq saw thirteen different prime ministers during the 12 years of the rule of King Faisal I, the first Iraqi monarch. The death of Faisal just one year after Iraqi independence expanded the fissures within the political elite. Many of these elites were willing to align with the British; the military, by contrast, began to see itself as the guardian of Iraqi and Arab nationalism. These conditions culminated in a military coup in 1936, marking the first entry of the Iraqi military into political life. The next five years saw half a dozen such coups. The military never took over the government, however. Instead, it oversaw the installation of new prime ministers. Iraq's first military coup that resulted in direct military control of the state came in 1958. In a bloody incident motivated by the toppling of the pro-British monarchy in Egypt, Gen. Abdel-Kareem Qasim overthrew Iraq's Hashemite monarchy and its civilian government. Qasim ruled until 1963, when the Baath Party briefly took power in a coup. The Baathists lost power in a countercoup staged by Gen. Abdul Salam Arif that same year. Arif, and later his brother, Abdul Rahman, ruled until 1968. The Baath Party took over again that year, establishing a military-backed one-party state that would dominate the country for 35 years. Under the Baathists — especially under Saddam Hussein, who became president in 1979 — the Iraqi military stabilized itself as an institution. It became the backbone of the Baathist regime and one of the largest militaries in the world. While the Iraqi military had participated in each of the four Arab-Israeli wars, its first intense foreign struggle pitted it against Iran for most of the 1980s. The Iran-Iraq War underscored how the Baathist military establishment had transcended the country's ethno-sectarian divides. In that war, Iraqi Shiite troops fought their Iranian coreligionists despite Tehran's appeals to Pan-Shiite sentiments. Despite being dominated by Sunnis, the Baath Party successfully employed Iraqi nationalist and pan-Arab ideology to prevent Iraq's Shiite majority from engaging in identity politics. Though this strategy was not as successful when used with the Kurds, given the ethnic factor, the Iraqi military nonetheless succeeded in tamping down (by brute force when necessary) tendencies such as Kurdish separatism, Shiite sectarianism and Islamism, which emerged later on as significant forces and could not be supplanted by state-driven Baathism. This success was a product of more than half a century of evolution before the Iraqi military came into its own in the 1960s. Several decades of close support from a Great Power patron was key in this emergence. That foreign power also created a political system that, despite its weaknesses, permitted the armed forces to mature as a security apparatus before it seized power. In fact, British nation building probably was the key element that made the Iraqi military what it was before the U.S. invasion. London enjoyed the advantage of not having any outside power able to impede British efforts in Iraq. The military also benefited from the Iraqi nationalist sentiment born of anger at this British rule. Perhaps the most important element, and in contrast with contemporary U.S. efforts, was that the British engaged in real nation building — creating a completely new state on the ashes of an old imperial order. These circumstances allowed the British to cultivate Iraqi nationalism from scratch even though the royal family had been imported from the Arabian Peninsula. Iraqi nationalism was further embedded into the fabric of the country because of the absence of strong partisan movements. Additionally, three decades of monarchical rule played a key role in shaping Iraqi nationalism, upon which Arab nationalism and Baathism were grafted, and which, for the most part, kept in check sectarian impulses. All of this ended after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The Iraqi Military After 2003

Whereas prior to 2003, the Iraqi military had been the guarantor of unity in a non-sectarian, multiethnic state, the post-2003 military lost key elements of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Having been marginalized since the founding of Iraq as a nation-state, the Shia and the Kurds had realized that simply ousting the Baath Party would not ensure that they would attain power via democratic means. The military establishment, which was based on decades of institutional continuity going back to the 1920s, would have to be torn down. It was the engine that shaped the old order and would continue to pose a critical threat to Shiite and Kurdish efforts to consolidate their newly acquired power unless dismantled. The Bush administration has received intense criticism for dismantling the Iraqi security establishment. Its decision was largely influenced by the debaathification drive promoted by the Shia and the Kurds, who in turn received encouragement in this direction from their allies in Tehran. The Shia and the Kurds acted out of fear that the old security establishment could easily come back later and undermine the new regime, given that it had yet to form a state, let alone a security apparatus. Like their American partners, the Shia and the Kurds seriously underestimated the ability of the Sunnis to mount an insurgency and complicate efforts toward the construction of a new political structure. The various types of Sunni insurgents, Baathists, nationalists, Islamists, and even foreign jihadists linked to al Qaeda put together a ferocious insurgency during the 2003-07 period in great part because of the organizational capabilities of the disbanded security forces. The U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces alienated the Sunnis and is often cited as the most important factor in the emergence of the Sunni insurgency. Tens of thousands of former Sunni soldiers provided the manpower for the armed uprising that took the United States four years to bring under control. Overall, the insurgency had sharpened the ethno-sectarian fault lines, bringing the ultimate cohesion of the new armed forces into question. This insurgency eventually was brought under control by a skillful move by the United States to realign with the Sunnis. The U.S. move to debaathify the Iraqi political and military structures was a violation of the American strategic imperative to balance between Sunni-Shiite forces and created the incentive for a broader Sunni insurgency to take root. This strategic error was corrected with the 2007 surge by bringing force to bear against the Sunni insurgency and compelling the Sunnis to end their war with the United States and align with Washington against Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies on one side and al Qaeda-led jihadists on the other. As a result, Sunni assistance allowed the United States to weaken the jihadists and move toward the creation of a bulwark against Iranian/Shiite power in Iraq (which remains a work in progress). Sunni reintegration into the Iraqi armed forces has happened at a much slower pace than the Sunnis wanted, and it only has happened at all with U.S. prodding. For example, tens of thousands of members of the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni militia, await integration into the security forces. Meanwhile, the peshmerga, or Kurdish militia, remain a relatively independent and powerful force in the country's north. Though some efforts to integrate the peshmerga into the Ministry of the Interior are under way, they have stalled along with the formation of the government. Ultimately, whatever their organizational status, they will retain ultimate loyalty to the Kurdish cause. The Kurdistan Regional Government, realizing it is losing its security guarantor with the U.S. withdrawal and understanding the consequences of Sunni-Shiite interests aligning against them in a struggle between Kurds and Arabs, decided to form a unified Kurdish army to defend their autonomy.

Inside the Iraqi Security Forces

The marginalization of the Sunnis and the autonomous status of the Kurds meant that the security forces became heavily Shia. Iraq's budding military thus reflects the deep ethno-sectarian divisions that define the country and its nascent political system. At present, approximately 8 percent of the Ministry of Defense is composed of Kurds and 12 percent of Sunnis (who are more than twice that in overall demographic terms), while the remainder is Shia. The ethno-sectarian makeup of security forces of a given province depends on its ethnic and sectarian breakdown. For example, Kurds compose more than 50 percent of the security forces in Kirkuk in the north; in southern and central Iraq, the Shia compose most of the security forces; and in the Sunni triangle, Sunnis form the bulk of security forces with some Kurdish representation depending on the province in question. In ethnically mixed Baghdad, the breakdown of security forces depends on the neighborhood. Thus, security forces in the Sunni neighborhood of Ahdamiyah lack Shiite members, forces in the Shiite Kadhimiyah neighborhood lack Sunnis and mixed neighborhoods like Mansour have mixed (albeit majority Shiite) forces. The Iraqi security forces today are divided between the ministries of Defense and Interior. The Iraqi army, which consists of some 196 combat battalions, primarily infantry with some motorization, is the largest component under the Ministry of Defense. Stationed across the country, the army is equipped primarily for security and stability operations, though its capabilities remain limited in areas of planning, supply and logistics, maintenance, and command and control. Consequently, the military will remain dependent on U.S. support and expertise until at least the end of 2011, when it is expected to be capable of independently carrying out internal security functions. At present, however, the Iraqi military completely lacks the doctrine, training, equipment and capability to carry out an external, territorial defense function. It is not expected to be capable of these missions until late in the decade at the earliest. The Ministry of the Interior includes numerous entities — Iraqi Police Services; the Federal Police; the Directorate of Border Enforcement (as well as the Ports of Entry Directorate); the Oil Police and the Facilities Protection Services, which guard other critical infrastructure, major government buildings and the like. The security forces of these entities are intended to number in the tens of thousands, though they generally remain undermanned and underfunded. The Iraqi military and Federal Police are generally seen as less riven by sectarian tensions than the other security forces, and have had some success with moving units and individuals from their parochial loyalties. But even here, units within divisions and division commanders tend to reflect sectarian and intra-sectarian loyalties and concerns. Career paths and sectarian loyalties play a big part in command and promotions, so that Shiite (and to a certain extent Kurdish) domination of the security forces is becoming increasingly entrenched and structurally hardwired into the institutions of the security forces. Most members of the Iraqi armed forces still see their loyalty as primarily to their sect or ethnicity rather than to the Iraqi state. While the U.S. military once played a large role in ensuring a mix between Sunni and Shia down to the platoon level, that is no longer the case. The Shia now control the military units, which are segregated along ethno-sectarian lines such that in Shiite areas one sees solely Shiite police or army personnel and vice versa in Sunni areas. Even where Sunnis and Shia or Kurds are present in the same division, they frequently do not trust each other. In most cases, Sunni commanders reportedly lack the power to do their jobs, especially in Baghdad. Their positions are largely symbolic, existing mainly to show that the government does not discriminate — when in most cases, Sunni soldiers are in fact discriminated against. According to one source, these problems in the Iraqi army and police result from the politicization of both institutions by Shiite parties. Shia who formerly belonged to Shiite militias or parties fully control key military and police positions. For example, al-Maliki reportedly retains exclusive control over Baghdad's army division; the Ministry of Defense reportedly exercises no authority over its activities. The structural makeup of the Iraqi government and military simply will not allow for the establishment of sectarian balance. The Iraqi state is fragile and has become too much like the religiously fractured Lebanon. The Iraqi army has no doctrine, and with dual loyalties, it operates as a grand confederation of militias. U.S. efforts to reform the military and the police force and increase Sunni Arab representation have failed in the face of ongoing ferocious Shiite resistance to any attempts to weaken their hold on the security forces. Nepotism is also rife among senior Iraqi military and police officials, who select their bodyguards from among their relatives. This happens in large part because they cannot trust outsiders — an important anecdotal piece of evidence in terms of senior Iraqi officials' trust of government institutions and the viability of these institutions as organs of state able to exist above individual loyalties and ethno-sectarian tensions. Many officers and even commanders reportedly lack qualifications to serve in their current positions, but nepotism and party connections have given them positions in the army or military. Political parties reportedly hold great sway over the police and army and can win the release of suspects arrested for charges as serious as terrorism. The officer structure of the new Iraqi army is virtually the polar opposite of the old Iraqi army that existed from 1921-2003. The new army's command structure is completely composed of Shia and Kurds aside from isolated cases in central Iraq. Al-Maliki made it policy to send Shiite officers to the United States to participate in command training cycles, and STRATFOR sources suggest that Sunni Arabs are in practice effectively barred from commanding military units above company level in most cases. As it stands today, the overwhelming majority of field and battle commanders are either Shia or Kurds. Because the reverse was true before 2003, senior Iraqi commanders have gained all their military experience as leaders since that time, while the Sunni, with meaningful military and administrative experience and expertise, have been barred from those positions. By contrast, there are many Sunni Arab officers in the Iraqi national police, especially in central Iraq, probably a result of assiduous U.S. efforts to increase Sunni representation. There are essentially three forces in Sunni areas: the police, which has a significant Sunni presence; the army, dominated by Shiite soldiers; and the Sons of Iraq militia — each operating in the context of a delicate division of labor. Even so, the Shia are fully in control in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas. Iraqi border police on the border with Iran are Shiites, with Turkey and Iran are Kurds, and with Saudi Arabia and Syria are mostly Sunni Arab. Shia, especially Sadrists, heavily operate Iraq's counterterrorism bureau.

Moving Forward

The new security system has had no experience with a leadership transition, and just a few years of experience with a democratic system. In any state that seeks to transition from autocracy to democracy while retaining the old military establishment, whether the military will submit to civilian authority is a key challenge — a challenge exacerbated by the fact that Iraq's civilian authority is fractured. Iraq's armed forces have seen only one political leadership, the outgoing al-Maliki administration, whose efforts to consolidate power have further undermined the idea of security forces being loyal to the nation-state. Ultimately, whether the armed forces remain a coherent entity will depend upon the strength of a new power-sharing formula in Baghdad. Because the basic organs of state are still getting their footing, the control of various elements of the security forces remains a critical — if not the single most important — aspect of political power. This makes the ability to placate the vested interests entrenched since 2005 in Baghdad while accommodating those that emerged in the most recent election of central importance for the formation of a new governing coalition. At a time when U.S. forces are in the process of exiting the country, Iraqi security forces are still very far from displaying institutional cohesiveness, which has to do with vague national ideals that in turn produce problems having to do with loyalty, motivation and obedience to a chain of command. Each of these qualities is ingrained as a result of historical continuity and institutional memory — both of which are can only come with the passage of time. At present, the key issue is balancing multiple types of loyalties because even under normal circumstances, soldiers, officers and commanders simultaneously bear loyalty to a nationalistic cause, specific sub-national affiliations and the professional chain of command. In the case of Iraq, this becomes an even bigger issue because Iraqi nationalism is a contested notion steered by each communal group in a different direction. In fact, the sub-national loyalties largely trump the national identity. Part of this has to do with the rise to power of the Shia and Kurds, who have long opposed the historic definition of nationalism as defined by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party and military, and part of it is because a new form of nationalism takes time to evolve and requires a certain degree of civil harmony. It is true that the Sunnis dominated the Iraq built by the British, but it was in the name of Iraqi and Arab nationalism — an idea that no longer holds much currency, especially given the more recent history of the suppression of the Shia at the hands of the Baathists and now the Shia attempts to ensure that history is never repeated. Therefore, a major arrestor blocking present-day Iraq from developing a new nationalism is the fact that the Shia and Kurds who dominated the process of erecting the post-Baathist state were united in their opposition to the Baath, which became the raison d'etre for the new polity and its security forces. As a result, the driving force motivating the establishment of the new domestic security environment has been anti-Baathism. Stated differently, the new system is not founded on an alternative national ideal; rather, it is based on the rejection of the old one. The lack of a new national ideal itself is problematic, but the new Iraqi security forces face another dilemma as well in that their original cause — opposition to the Baathists — that has motivated the police, army, and intelligence personnel to do their job — establishing the writ of the new order in the country — is rapidly waning. In sharp contrast to the old security establishment, which was shaped by developments spanning across a large period of time, the new security forces have been nurtured at an accelerated pace and in a state of chaos and are thus all the more dependent on the time factor to evolve into an effective institution. The United States undoubtedly has far more resources than the British did, but Washington has had to deconstruct the old politico-military order and then construct a new one. The British struggled with ethno-sectarianism, but these tensions were not as pronounced as they are today (having been compounded and exacerbated both under Saddam's brutal repression of the Shia and Kurds, and more recently by the bitter and bloody near-civil war after the American invasion). The British also had ample time to oversee their creation mature into a genuine sovereign polity to the point that their creation eventually got rid of its creators and stood on its own. This multilevel factionalization of the political landscape bleeds into the security forces because the security forces are a creation of a loose "social" contract between these numerous factions. This is why the various divisions of the Iraqi army have units loyal to various Shiite and Kurdish political factions, e.g., Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Dawah Party, al-Sadrite Movement, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Kurdistan Democratic Party. Integrating Sunni militiamen into a security apparatus already rife with this kind of pre-existing factionalism could further aggravate the situation — assuming, of course, that the Shia agree to such an integration in the first place. Hyperfactionalization of political landscapes is a reality in many countries, but usually the militaries, which tend to be the most organized institution, are able to maintain the integrity of the state by assuming direct control over governance. Such decisions are taken by the chief of the general staff in concert with the corps commanders and the heads of other key departments (especially intelligence) within the military establishment, and they can be executed successfully because of the discipline within the ranks and loyalty to the chain of command. This was historically the case with the Iraqi army as well (despite the brief period of coups and counter-coups during the 1960s). But because that infrastructure was utterly dismantled and replaced with one in which militiamen dominated both the rank and file and leadership, the culture of professionalism, discipline, and esprit de corps will take time to be redeveloped — especially with an ambiguous sense of national cause and primary loyalties being subnational. The civilian government and the security forces are finding their footing for the first time at the same time, and the latter has been used in the struggle by the former to establish a sectarian balance of power. Thus, not only does one not serve as a supportive and stabilizing force for the other but also the institutional instabilities and power struggles on each side feed and exacerbate those on the other. It is not clear that Iraqi armed forces working under a civilian government will be able to deal with an outbreak of serious communal violence. It is even less likely that in the event that Iraq's political principals fail to share power for reasons having to do with domestic politics and/or outside interference the military can step in and act as a stabilizing force. Thus, the security situation in Iraq — and the security forces themselves — are ultimately dependent upon and beholden to the emergence of a political understanding and acceptable power-sharing agreement. Such an agreement must allow the fledgling post-Baathist Iraq to continue to make slow, plodding progress. Without such a deal, the security forces will be unable to impose and maintain stability in the country.

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