Here is a new Iraqi paradox: whatever progress the Shi’ite Muslim-dominated Baghdad government makes against jihadi insurgents occupying large swathes of north-western Iraq, it is simultaneously undermining what is left of the Iraqi state, whose frailty and malfunctions created the environment in which jihadism was able to surge in the first place.
The dereliction of the Iraqi state was already powerfully illustrated by the takeover of one-third of Iraq, including the city of Mosul, by Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) in June 2014. Security forces proved rotten to the core despite a decade of training and expansion. Local Sunni Arab elites were revealed to have turned their backs on their constituencies in favor of a corrupt, corrosive relationship with authorities in Baghdad. Power struggles in the capital often deteriorated into sectarian fear-mongering.
Since June, matters have got worse, particularly in the current battle for the Sunni-populated town of Tikrit, where much of the fighting is by Shi’ite militias under the guidance of Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders. Though Iraqi elites and foreign officials alike have signaled they understand the gravity of such shortcomings, they have done little beyond professing intent to shore up the military, re-empower Sunni Arabs through local governance and provision of security and launch an inclusive political process in the capital.
At the same time, the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has been all but sidelined by the massive expansion, multiplication and professionalization of so-called “popular mobilization” groups (Hashid al-Shaabi) – in effect Shi’ite militias – that enjoy considerable support in some segments of society and have taken the lead in the single-minded pursuit of defeating Islamic State by military means.
This decentralized fight has reduced the army to playing a bit role at best, which in turn has reduced the role of the prime minister, its commander in chief. In the vacuum, these militias operate beyond the control of the state, erode its credibility and cannibalize its resources. Their victories — in Tikrit and elsewhere — most likely will further entrench and normalize their role at the state’s expense, which would mark a decisive turn away from the state-building process meant to be ushered in by the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Abadi professes a reform agenda, but he has not been empowered to deliver on it. On one side, he derives little power from control over national security institutions that have been thoroughly discredited; the interior and national security ministries, in particular, are in the hands of political rivals and essentially serve as the militias’ logistical backbone. On the other, he faces open resistance in parliament, especially from Iran-backed hardline Shi’ite factions, to efforts to reach out to Sunni Arabs and return them to politics.
The risk is that, as the balance of forces tilts further to the militias’ advantage, they will have the power to decide what happens during and after military operations. There have been troubling signs that, calls for restraint notwithstanding, they have engaged in the same brutal, sectarian-based practices as their Islamic State adversaries, including summary executions and population displacement in mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas.
Moreover, there is danger the aftermath of battle might include reprisals against local elements under the banner of transitional justice, targeting anyone thought to be associated with Islamic State, reminiscent of de-Baathification after 2003. Without local institutions or acknowledged leaders to govern Sunni Arab areas, militias could end up having to promote local proxies lacking legitimacy. This would be especially damaging for the process of appointing and recruiting local police.
The military campaign is thus exacerbating the sense of powerlessness, disenfranchisement and humiliation among Sunni Arabs that gave rise to Islamic State.
The growing tendency in Baghdad and the south to equate Shi’ite militias with the national army, to declare oneself a patriot while expressing gratitude to Iran for its intervention, and to subsume national symbols under Shi’ite ones — with black, yellow and green flags referring to Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Taleb, Shiism’s third Imam, increasingly crowding out the Iraqi flag — is reshaping Iraqis’ national identity in ways that will vastly complicate well-intentioned efforts to advance inclusive politics and governance.
The relationship between Iraq and Iran is also undergoing rapid transformation. Not long ago, Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers commanding Iraqi fighters bearing Hussein flags as they march on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit would have been unimaginable in both countries; today it is highly publicized reality. Iranian jets have bombed Iraqi territory with Baghdad’s approval, and portraits of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can now be seen in the Iraqi capital. In the traumatically confused context of modern Iraq, the surrender of national sovereignty is fast becoming the new normal.
Militias are presenting themselves as the sole, viable alternative to a failing state. Baghdad is moving to relabel them as the National Guard, a gendarmerie-like entity that is being established by law to replace the army as the primary internal security force. But they will continue to function as a refuge and incubator for a nihilistic generation of young Iraqis devoid of other prospects, exposed to extreme forms of violence and imbued with a deeply sectarian narrative — the mirror image of the Sunni youths streaming into Islamic State.
Under Iran’s guidance, the militias are fighting Islamic State in ways that undercut U.S. objectives and influence, entrench divisions within Iraqi society and give short shrift to any ambition of recreating an inclusive Iraqi state. This is short-sighted. The collapse of what is left of the Iraqi state would guarantee chronic instability for many years. Neither Iran nor the United States has a long-term interest in that scenario, but neither is behaving as if it fully appreciates how plausible it has become.
For a genuine victory over Islamic State, Abadi needs to receive the kind of political support and prodding from both the United States and Iran that would allow him to assert state authority in areas wrested from Islamic State. He should monitor the re-establishment of local police, which, following any Islamic State defeat, risks falling under the militias’ sway.
Politically, Abadi should reach out to the local Sunni Arab leadership in its entirety. In turn, this leadership should deal with the Baghdad government as its primary interlocutor, rather than forging self-serving, conflicting alliances with the militias – Shi’ite or Kurd – that claim to have liberated them. Abadi should steer humanitarian aid to Tikrit and other areas freed of Islamic State control, rebuild administrative infrastructure and reestablish electricity, water and other basic services.
Abadi should also seek the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount leader of the Shi’ite world, and who lives in Iraq. This way he could mobilize elements — especially within the Shi’ite political scene — that hew to a more nationalistic view and that, even as they partner with Iran, favor Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Short of such an approach, a hollowed-out Iraqi state might regain the territories that fell under Islamic State hegemony nine months ago but lose them yet again – this time to the militias.
Maria Fantappie is the Senior Analyst, Iraq, and Peter Harling is the Project Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organization.