Can Mahdi tame Iraq’s militias?


When it comes to militias, he who pays the piper does not always call the tune. The 2011 Libyan revolution was won by a hotchpotch of different militias. Probably the worst mistake made by the National Transitional Council (NTC) was putting these fighters on the payroll until it could rebuild the country’s police and army. The idea was they would form the core of new security forces. But it never happened. Militia warlords and their men were too jealous of their newfound power.

The story has been similar in Iraq. The national army was deliberately hollowed out during the eight-year misrule of Nouri Al-Maliki who appointed unqualified cronies to senior command positions. Thus, when a small force of Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) terrorists approached Mosul, the magnificently-equipped but poorly-trained and badly-led troops cut and ran, leaving most of their weaponry behind them.

In the end it was the Hashd Al-Shaabi militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), that led the ground fighting that drove Daesh butchers from Iraq, under an umbrella of Coalition warplanes, which included a contingent from the Kingdom. Last year Baghdad followed the unwise example of the Libyan NTC and agreed to pay militias the same salaries as members of the armed forces. While premier Adel Abdul Mahdi had been under pressure to make the move he may also have calculated that if the Iraqi government paid the militiamen, they would no longer require the covert funding lavished on them by the Iranian regime. He might also have imagined that if his government became the formal paymaster, it could tell the militias what to do. If this was his thinking, it was risky. Iran is not going to be eased out of Iraq so easily and the militias are hardly going to refuse Tehran gold.

But now Mahdi has taken what he doubtless sees is the next logical step, issuing a decree that the PMF are to operate as an indivisible part of the regular armed forces and are subject to the same discipline. It remains to be seen if this works. In his favor, Mahdi has received the support of two militia leaders, the more significant being Muqtada Al-Sadr, who played a key role in backing the politically independent 76- year-old Mahdi for the premiership last November. But other warlords will be less willing to come under direct army orders. They may not defy the government openly, but in the field they can quite easily ignore the military high command, unless it suits them.

And there is another point about militias that is well-illustrated by what happened in Libya. In the aftermath of victory, many of the best thuwar (fighters) put aside their weapons and returned to their civilian jobs. At the same time many young men who had avoided the fighting, among them criminals and ne’er-do-wells, flocked to the militias and gloried in the thuwar status they had never earned. These gun-toting thugs, still paid out of oil revenues, enriched themselves through kidnapping, extortion, bank fraud and fuel and people smuggling. Their unwillingness to integrate into the security forces or go home to admittedly now poor chances of decent employment has lain at the heart of Libya’s current bloody tragedy. Might the same danger now face Iraq?