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Dec 20, 2011 | 11:53 GMT

13 mins read

Special Series: Security in Iraq After the U.S. Withdrawal

In the first part of this series, STRATFOR discussed the political situation in Iraq in light of the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Understanding that political situation is key to understanding Iraq's security situation. Violence is inseparable from Iraqi politics. Most of the factions in Iraq operate within the country's political framework — the notable exception being al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — and have militias to enhance and defend their political power. These militant groups commonly engage in organized crime to generate revenue for themselves and their factions and to influence political struggles. Not wanting to give U.S. forces an excuse to remain in the country, almost all sides have worked to keep violence to a relatively low level in recent months. But with U.S. forces having left, there already have been indications that the artificial calm is fading. In post-American Iraq, should the political process reach an impasse or a group be excluded from power, any one of these factions could rapidly revert to armed conflict on a scale not seen since 2007.

Shiite Factions

The Shia dominate politics in Iraq today and can be separated into three factions: one led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, another led by radical Islamist leader Muqtada al-Sadr and a third led by the al-Hakim family.


Since becoming prime minister in 2006, al-Maliki has been consolidating power in Iraq and specifically striving to gain a monopoly over Iraq's military as well as its security and intelligence services. The struggle for control of the security services pit al-Maliki, his Shiite rival Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, and then-Defense Minister Abd al-Qadr Muhammaed Jassim al-Obaidi against one another, a contest that al-Maliki eventually won. As part of this struggle, in December 2008, an elite counterterrorism force that reports directly to al-Maliki arrested at least 23 high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry, greatly eroding the influence of al-Bolani. In 2006, al-Maliki sought to confront the U.S.-controlled and Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) by creating a parallel intelligence service. Al-Maliki selected Sheerwan al-Waili to develop his own intelligence unit within the previously impotent Ministry of State for National Security Affairs (MSNS). A campaign to purge the INIS and turf wars between INIS and MSNS ensued. By 2009, the longtime director of the INIS, Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, quit out of frustration over al-Maliki's refusal to seriously consider his organization's intelligence information. Al-Maliki's control over the military and security and intelligence services was cemented with the formation of his new Cabinet in December 2010, which followed highly contested parliamentary elections in March of that year. In the new Cabinet, al-Maliki holds the positions of acting defense minister, interior minister and minister of state for national security. Though his control in these areas is not absolute, al-Maliki at least maintains nominal command of the military, the Interior Ministry and the associated intelligence services within the ministries. Furthermore, as prime minister, al-Maliki controls special units that report directly to his office, such as the Counter Terrorism Bureau, which oversees Iraqi special operations forces.

Al-Sadr, the Mehdi Army and Promised Day Brigades

The Mehdi Army is led by al-Sadr, who frequently travels between Iran and Iraq and has ties to both governments. In fact, al-Sadr has significant political influence in Iraq via the al-Sadrite movement in the Iraqi parliament. He also has widespread popular support in the streets, which provides him significant social influence. The Mehdi Army is estimated to have 40,000-60,000 fighters, and much of the organized crime in Shiite areas of Iraq is attributed to it. A cease-fire was reached in 2008 between the Mehdi Army and U.S. forces, though al-Sadr has threatened to take up arms against any Americans, including civilians, who remain in the country after Dec. 31. After the Mehdi Army laid down its arms in 2008, al-Sadr created the Promised Day Brigades (PDB) in order to continue to have an armed group under his control. The PDB has received training, equipment and funds from Iran but is loyal to al-Sadr. It operates out of Sadr City, has an estimated 5,000 members and is considered by the U.S. military to be one of the most effective and powerful Shiite militias in Iraq. The PDB was recently accused of sending fighters to help the Syrian regime fight insurgents in that country, but this accusation has not been proved.

Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq

The al-Hakim family leads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose armed wing was the Badr Brigade. The Badr Brigade split off and became the Badr Organization, which now claims to have disarmed and become a purely political organization, currently led by Iraqi Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri. The ISCI and Badr Organization maintain close political ties and are currently part of the Iraqi National Alliance, which also includes the al-Sadrite movement.

Iranian-Controlled Groups

In addition to the three major Shiite factions, there are two militant groups in Iraq that will likely support and fight for whichever faction Iran supports at the time. The Iranians encouraged splits in al-Sadr's movement that led to the emergence of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (The Groups of the Righteous) and Kataib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades). Perhaps due to al-Sadr's dependence on Iran, the Shiite cleric did not make any aggressive actions against Tehran in response, in spite of his high levels of popular support. These two groups are now believed to be controlled and supported by the Quds Force within Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Although they still consider themselves part of the wider al-Sadr movement established by Muqtada's father, the late Ayatollah Muhammad Sadq al-Sadr, these groups are very much under the influence of Iran. Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah are estimated to have around 5,000 members each. They are very organized, well-funded and have received extensive training in Iran. Along with PDB, they are considered among the most powerful Shiite militias in Iraq.

Sunni Factions

The Sunnis are highly fractured politically, and their security situation reflects this disunity.

Sunni Nationalist Insurgency

With the collapse of the Baathist regime and the rise of Shiite power in Iraq, a Sunni nationalist insurgency was born. These fighters contributed to increased violence in Iraqi provinces such as Anbar. This changed with the emergence in 2005 of the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq, a coalition of Sunni tribal sheikhs also known as the Sons of Iraq. This development contributed greatly to the weakening of the nationalist insurgency in Iraq, but the Sons of Iraq were viewed with suspicion by the central authority in Baghdad and thus excluded from the government. There are currently around 50,000 Sons of Iraq members in Iraq, and tensions continue to exist between the group and Baghdad. If the Sons of Iraq and associated tribes revert to violence, the situation has the potential to deteriorate quickly.

Al Qaeda in Iraq

Current U.S. military estimates put the number of AQI fighters at 1,000, a marked decline in strength from the group's peak between 2004 and 2007. AQI's current suspected leader is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badr, a native of Iraq. The group continues to stage substantial and indiscriminate attacks across the country, but its main operating base is reported to be in the north around the area of Mosul. AQI is also suspected to have worked in concert with the Ansar al-Islam militant group, whose longtime leader, Abu Abdullah al-Shafii, was arrested in 2010. Despite his arrest, Ansar al-Islam continues to be active, particularly in northern Iraq.


When the Iraqi regime collapsed and the army was dissolved, former members of Saddam Hussein's government began to fuel a substantial part of the initial insurgency. These elements were majority Sunni and were predominantly former Fedayeen and other members of the regime's intelligence and security apparatus. Collectively these insurgents were labeled Baathists. After the capture and execution of Saddam, the Baathist insurgency steadily lost strength and became fragmented as members shifted to more nationalist and Islamist factions of the Iraqi insurgency. However, Baathist symbology, flags and rhetoric continue to exist within certain militant groups in Iraq, such as the Jaish al-Tareqah al-Nakshabandia. The al-Maliki security apparatus has targeted Baathists in the past two months, making dozens of arrests. Whether these are actual Baathists or just perceived Sunni threats being labeled as such has yet to be determined.

Kurdish Faction

The Kurds are feeling significant pressure — both political and security — on three sides from al-Maliki's Shiite government, Iran and Turkey. Their main security imperative is defending the Kurdistan region, which sits atop 20 percent of Iraq's estimated oil reserves. Currently the peshmerga paramilitary group has about 200,000 members divided equally between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political parties. Around 2004, several peshmerga units were converted into Iraqi army and security units:
  • Two mountain divisions (totaling 29,500 troops) were established in the Iraqi army
  • One division equivalent (10,000-12,000 troops) was set up in Directorate of Border Enforcement Region I
  • Two "Zerevani" divisions (totaling 30,000 troops) were set up in the Iraqi federal police force
  • Twenty-one Kurdish Regional Border Guards brigades (50,000-70,000 troops, including support) were established
These forces are about as well-equipped as many of the armies in the region, utilizing anti-tank weapons, man-portable air-defense systems, anti-aircraft guns, artillery, armored vehicles, tanks, technicals (pickup trucks with a heavy machine gun mounted in the back) and helicopters. While they technically answer to Baghdad, it can be safely assumed that these units' ultimate loyalty lies with the Kurdish people and their perceived interests. In the event of an Iraqi civil war, they would likely return home.

Organized Crime

Organized crime is one of the primary means by which these militant and insurgent groups generate funding for themselves and the factions they represent. Many of the low-level acts of violence seen in Iraq recently — from kidnappings to armed robberies — are part of these groups' efforts to raise money and are not necessarily related to political struggles. What this means is that even if the various Iraqi factions manage to avoid armed conflict resulting from a political crisis, organized crime in Iraq will not dissipate. It is difficult to discern which groups are behind which acts, though the location of the crime can be informative. Crime in Baghdad and southern Iraq can be attributed to Shiite militias and proxies, insurgency groups are likely behind incidents in the Sunni triangle (which stretches roughly from Tikrit in the north to Ar Ramadi in the west and Baghdad in the east) and Kurdish groups are mostly active in the northern regions. Much of the organized crime in Iraq revolves around oil. Estimates released in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Energy and Government Accountability Office said that there was a shortfall of 100,000-300,000 barrels per day of oil from production to exportation. Inadequate metering of the volume of oil being pumped makes it difficult to determine exactly how much oil is lost to theft. Meters are gradually being installed along pipelines to track the quantity during shipment, but that, too, is inadequate. And because it is unknown how much is being produced, it is easy to forge paperwork at oil terminals or to tap pipelines and wells themselves. Oil is smuggled in Iraq in three main ways. The first is by mixing official loads in tanker ships with unofficial quantities at the Basrah oil terminal. Illegal payments made directly to corrupt terminal officials cover the extra oil. It is easy to smuggle large amounts this way; the coalition navy will only detain ships that are carrying more than twice their official load, and if a ship is carrying more than that, it can sail in Iranian waters and pay a bribe to the Iranian navy to circumvent coalition ships. Another common smuggling method is the illegal bunkering of oil, a crime that is particularly popular in Nigeria that entails tapping into pipelines, stealing the crude and selling it on domestic and foreign black markets. In Iraq, small quantities of bunkered oil are taken to tankers offshore or straight to expensive markets, such as Bahrain, for sale directly on the local black market. Oil is also frequently smuggled overland in tanker trucks. One official at the Baiji oil refinery was arrested after accepting payments in exchange for letting 39 tanker trucks fill up unofficially and drive away. Popular destinations include Syria and Turkey. Kidnapping, which previously only affected foreign nationals, has evolved over time to target Iraqi citizens as well. Kidnappings generate high revenues and are practiced by everyone from street gangs to militias to insurgents. Based on open-source information, Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk are the most likely places one would be kidnapped in Iraq, and the average ransom is around $600,000; however, Westerners can be ransomed for $1 million to $5 million. Extortion is also prevalent. Businessmen in Basra have said that any state-related business requires payments to Shiite militias and parties, often in the form of kickbacks. For instance, two contracts may be offered — one in which the business must provide its own security, and one in which the Shiite militia or group receives a percentage of the contract in exchange for security guarantees. Because Iraq is a cash economy, there are also many opportunities for armed robbery. According to some estimates, about $1 million worth of cash and valuables are stolen at gunpoint in Iraq each month. Major banks have also been robbed, but such high-profile attacks have been on the decline since 2009. The country is also plagued by general goods smuggling and corruption by customs officials. These types of low-level violence are typically not related to the larger political battles in Iraq. As long as the various Iraqi militant and insurgent groups need funding, kidnappings, extortion, oil theft and other crimes will continue. But without the presence of U.S. forces, it is not assured that Iraq's factions will be able to limit their battles to the political realm.

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