Reconstructing Iraq’s security sector is a crucial component of the new U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State. The failure of the Iraqi army to defend Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, from the militant group’s attack in the summer of 2014 was a profound indictment of the country’s entire security apparatus. Despite a decade of U.S. efforts at reequipping, reorganizing, and retraining Iraqi security forces, most units in Iraq’s army and police remained plagued by sectarian and ethnic fissures and poor leadership. Reinvigorating Iraq’s security services is essential, as ultimately U.S. airpower must be coupled with an effective ground assault if the Islamic State is to be rolled back.

One of the most prominent elements of the security sector reform agenda, floated by both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, is the establishment of a new Iraqi national guard. The national guard would incorporate mainly Sunni tribal militias—armed groups that organized outside the formal army and police—to serve as local reserves under the control of provincial governors. Yet the details of this plan remain sketchy and the prospects for success uncertain. Adopting a more decentralized military structure goes against deeply ingrained elements of Iraq’s military culture. And it will require commitments from the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to allow real political power to devolve to local communities, particularly Sunnis in the northern and western provinces.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, other countries have grappled with the emergence of locally organized militias that are, at most, only nominally under central state control. On balance, the results of these engagements have been mixed, as government attempts to subsidize tribal, communal, and regional militias have come with great costs to state cohesion and actually empowered these groups to challenge central rule. The bid to create a national guard in Iraq represents an opportunity to solve some of these center-periphery problems. 

The plan to devolve power to provincial governors and local militias poses significant dangers. A predominantly Sunni national guard could refuse orders from a Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad, sowing seeds for further internal conflict. In addition, neighboring states could treat the national guard and other militias as proxy forces, using Iraq as an arena for conflict between Iran and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Yet the plan for military devolution could also help to alleviate Iraq’s deepening sectarian cleavages. The national guard would allow the central government to reach out to the Sunni minority while providing Sunnis with institutional assurances of inclusion and participation in national affairs. For this to happen, the initiative must be accompanied by a broader push to bring Sunnis into the political fold as partners—as well as by diplomatic efforts to ensure that Iraq’s neighbors do not use the devolution of military power as an opportunity to further destabilize the country.

The Militia and the State in Iraq

The idea of setting up local militias alongside the national armed forces does not have an auspicious history in Iraq. Groups such as the Popular Defense Forces under former prime minister Abdel Karim Qassem (1958–1963), the national guard under the first Baath regime in 1963, and the Popular Army under Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s were notorious for their brutal treatment of civilians and an overall lack of discipline. Instead of serving to augment the army and police forces, these militias were really meant to provide authoritarian rulers a counterbalance to disloyalty in the ranks.

The professional army viewed these civilian interlopers with distrust, if not hostility. Questions about chain of command—and whether militia fighters were required to take orders from higher-ranking army officers (or vice versa)—made relations between the army and militias tense.  Militias lacked training and were poorly organized, and they often proved a liability when tested in combat against better-trained forces, jeopardizing Iraq’s defense against regional rivals.

With the overthrow of Saddam and the breakdown of state authority that followed the U.S. dissolution of the Iraqi army, each of Iraq’s new and emergent political factions needed its own militias in order to survive and compete for power. The two dominant Kurdish parties each had their own peshmerga units. Some of these forces, such as the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), had formed in exile and essentially returned to Iraq in the wake of advancing U.S. troops. Others emerged indigenously to provide security and political muscle to new political aspirants. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army group, for instance, was part religious revival and part protection racket, providing security and extorting taxes from poor Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad and the south.

As the security situation worsened through 2004 and 2005, the United States began promoting the formation of so-called Sunni Awakening militias to help defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (an indirect forbearer of the Islamic State). Seeing the newly installed government in Baghdad as a vehicle for Shia supremacy in Iraq, many of the tribes had at least initially backed al-Qaeda in Iraq as a way to frustrate Washington and defend Sunni interests.

The Awakening hinged on a crucial bargain between the United States and the tribes: The United States would provide weapons and jobs, and prevent Baghdad’s security forces from entering Sunni-dominated zones of western Iraq. In return, the tribes, for all intents and purposes, would be self-governing and responsible for rooting out insurgency. Support from regional Sunni states proved crucial in the effort, particularly the partnership between Jordanian intelligence, with its deep networks among the tribes of Iraq’s Anbar Province, and Saudi funding. The project was so successful that by the end of 2007 between 65,000 and 80,000 people had enrolled in militias that spread from Anbar to the provinces of Babil, Nineveh, Saladin, Tamim, Diyala, and Baghdad.

Like many of his Shia cohort, then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki distrusted the regular army and the Awakening militias as a redoubt of Sunni Baathism and an instrument for continued U.S. intervention. The distrust between the regular Iraqi army and locally recruited, foreign-supported auxiliaries has a powerful precedent in Iraq’s history: during the 1920s and 1930s the British recruited an ethnic minority, the Assyrian Christians, into a separate armed force called the Levies, which bypassed Baghdad and served the British directly. The Levies eventually overshadowed the regular army in size and capability—a fact that incensed Iraq’s Sunni nationalists and led to the army’s massacre of Assyrian civilians in 1933.

Once the United States drew down its forces, Maliki moved to dismantle the Sunni militias. A handful of fighters were given positions in the police, army, or elsewhere in government. Most were simply dismissed, and some prominent militia leaders were indicted on charges of terrorism or political subversion. In their stead, Maliki turned to a combination of elite special operations units, drawn from the ranks of the Shia militias and given special training and arms by the United States, and local militia forces tied directly to him through patronage and patrimonial networks.

Not surprisingly, when the Islamic State began its 2014 summer offensive in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, the regular Iraqi army—ill-trained and with little unit cohesion—performed profoundly poorly. Meanwhile, Shia militias loosely tied to the central government through sectarian parties mobilized to defend Samarra and Baghdad. The Mahdi Army, for instance, which was officially dissolved after government troops stormed Sadr’s stronghold in Basra in March 2008, was suddenly back at the barricades. Supported by U.S. air strikes, the August and September counterattacks on Islamic State positions have been spearheaded by a combination of special operations forces and Kurdish peshmerga.

The National Guard Project: Toward A Second Awakening?

Undergirding the push for a new national guard in Iraq is the belief that it will provide a means to better integrate Sunni militia forces and potentially create a counter to the Islamic State among Sunnis—similar to what occurred during the first Awakening. The Iraqi government has reportedly been meeting with leaders from the Dulaym, Shammar, Anayza, Jubur, Albu Hamdan, and Aqaydat tribes to discuss the formation of the national guard forces.

But actual support for the plan varies depending on the tribes’ locations, and on their calculations of a host of competing pressures from the Baghdad government, the Shia militias, the Kurds, and the Islamic State. For example, in Anbar, the seat of the original Awakening where the Islamic State has struggled for control, the national guard announcement appears to have hastened some defections among local tribes, particularly near Erbil. More than 20 tribal leaders in Anbar are talking to American officials; they include Ahmed Abu Risha, who took over the leadership of the Anbar Awakening after the assassination of his brother in 2007, as well as Hamid Shokah (leader of the Albu Dhiyab) and Rafe’ Abdul-Karim al-Fahdawi, leader of the Albu Fahd. In Kirkuk, 5,000 tribesmen volunteered to join the national guard, under the supervision of Anwar Assi, leader of the Ubayd tribe. But in Nineveh, the plan is struggling to gain traction. The governor of Nineveh, Athil Nujayfi, supports the national guard plan in principle, but because the Kurds and the Islamic State are essentially in control of the province, efforts to recruit the area’s tribes into a centrally overseen national guard will be tough. And the proposal appears to have failed to woo over the prominent Dulaymi tribal figure, Ali Hatem, whose support of the Islamic State is rooted in the argument that the sectarian threat from the Iraqi army and Shia militias must be dealt with first.

But there are also broader factors related to the circumstances of today’s conflict that make a large-scale “second Awakening” unlikely.

First, the 2005–2007 Awakening was, in essence, the product of bilateral deals between the United States and Sunni militias. A crucial element was the U.S. military presence in Iraq, which allowed the United States to effectively bypass Baghdad. In 2014, with the United States withdrawn from Iraq and a new large-scale redeployment almost inconceivable, negotiating the mobilization and incorporation of Sunni militias necessarily will involve the central government, which remains dominated by Shia political parties. While Abadi has indicated his intent to build a broader coalition than Maliki built, he is unlikely to accede to the political autonomy and expanded representation that Sunnis will demand.

Second, even if Abadi were willing to countenance such a deal, the requisite political strategy is in some respects at odds with the necessary military tactics. The Awakening movement exploited intertribal tensions and rivalries to encourage individual tribal factions to “flip” and turn against the militants. Such divide-and-rule tactics made the United States a kind of broker, judiciously allocating rewards to the factions that served most faithfully while cutting off those that tarried or resisted. But if the central government were to offer a broad accommodation for Sunnis a whole—as the national guard strategy implies—such tactics would hardly be as useful, given that everyone could join the force at once and Baghdad would lose its leverage over individual militia units. This risk is especially apparent given that the national guard is expected to grow to between 120,000 to 200,000 men, which would make it significantly larger than the original Awakening and a potential threat to the regular Iraqi police and army, which numbered roughly 730,000 at the start of 2014 and whose numbers have since been depleted through combat losses, desertions, and defections. Moreover, as demonstrated in the battle against the Islamic State, the security forces have proven to be poorly trained and badly led, their ranks crippled by nepotism, corruption, and sectarianism.

Finally, the delicate regional balance of power further complicates the national guard plan. Iran is far and away Iraq’s closest regional ally and maintains strong ties to various Shia militias operating in the country. While the United States vacillated between hostility and tactical cooperation with Iraq’s Shia militias, Iran has always enjoyed much closer ideological, political, and personal ties with them. Senior figures from the Dawa group, which provides much of Iraq’s Shia political leadership, spent decades in exile in Iran in the 1980s. The Badr Corps was essentially an Iranian invention and served under Iranian command during the Iran-Iraq War. Sadr, while perhaps initially hostile to Iran, is now closely tied to Iran’s right-wing clerical factions.

Whether the United States and Iran can cooperate against the Islamic State remains unclear, despite a mutual interest in doing so. For now, Washington hopes to turn to Sunni Arab countries such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia to help train new Iraqi militias and stand up the guard. These countries have been involved in limited training programs for Iraqi and Afghan security forces, but their capabilities are far behind Iran’s Quds Force, which has decades of experience training groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Indeed, the possibility of introducing militias armed and supported by the United States and Sunni Arab states will likely induce Iran to expand its own support to Shia militias as a counterweight. This move would reduce the likelihood that Shia militias would disarm and further diminish the hopes of solidifying the formal Iraqi security forces as a national army representing—and holding sway over—all of Iraq.

Lessons From the Region

The rise of localized security is part of a broader regional trend that has been unfolding as the breakdown of central authority in a number of fractured Arab states leads substate actors to assume greater roles. The threat posed by Sunni extremists such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State makes reliance on community-based militias all the more important. Their very local and tribal orientations are often seen as the best bulwark against imported radicalism.

The question now is how reconstituted governments and their outside backers can harness this trend by giving substate actors—whether tribes, sectarian communities, or regional or ethnic separatists—armed leverage against central authorities, without inducing a further breakup of Arab states. A national guard–type body offers an apparent compromise between the usually violent monopolization of military power by the state and a complete devolution of authority to warlords. But a cursory glance at other Arab cases illustrates just how risky this strategy is.

In Yemen, indigenous tribal power has long formed the bulwark of resistance to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its splinters. The embattled central government sought to harness this resistance in the southern governorate of Abyan, which had fallen siege to Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula offshoot. Although purportedly comprised of both tribal and nontribal elements, these community-based militias, known as “popular committees,” were in theory subordinated to the Yemeni military’s national command structure. They were essentially an attempt to “deputize” local security bodies to project the government’s authority in a province where it had none by guarding roads, schools, and other public facilities.

By some accounts, the popular committees achieved a measure of success, and the public was to a degree grateful. But the committees were soon criticized for their harsh treatment of citizens and for the blockades of fuel trucks they undertook to exert pressure on the government. And as in other cases, once these committees became empowered, it was difficult and dangerous to curtail their salaries and reintegrate them into a cohesive national structure. In post-Qaddafi Libya, a weak central government faced the challenge of demobilizing and integrating the country’s powerful militias without any means of coercion—the regular army and police were (and still are) effectively shells. A national guard plan was conceived in April 2013 to create a standing military force comprised primarily of recruits from state-sponsored militias—a sort of gap-filler to carry out nationwide policing functions while the regular army was being trained and equipped. But the program collapsed due to political polarization and the perception among Qaddafi-era officers and more secularly oriented politicians that it was a ploy by the Islamists to build a private army of militias. In both form and purpose, the national guard seemed to be a continuation of the flawed Libya Shield Force divisions—regionally aligned militias that were brought under the nominal authority of the chief of staff but that were in practice free to pursue political and criminal agendas, to include laying siege to elected institutions.

And, as in the case of Iraq, historical memory weighed heavily on the opposition to the Libyan national guard and the Libya Shield Force. Critics saw them as simply another iteration of the dreaded revolutionary committees—the thuggish paramilitaries that Qaddafi had empowered to counter the regular army, which he considered disloyal.

Collectively, the Yemeni and Libyan cases, alongside Iraq’s previous history of failed efforts to mobilize militias, offer cautionary lessons for the United States and the Iraqi government as they move forward on the Sunni national guard.

Future Approaches

Strong states that effectively and responsibly control their use of force are by far the best guarantors of peace and stability. Yet many states fall far short of this ideal. The genie of tribal and communal militias in Iraq was let out of the bottle decades ago, in the waning years of the Saddam regime. They became even more entrenched due to the disbanding of the Iraqi army under the American occupation. Militias, in Iraq and elsewhere, have been founts of violence and instability and threats to human and international security.

Instead of struggling in vain to try to reverse this trend, the national guard embraces it, seeking to use it to find ways to increase stability across the country. Doing so requires several initiatives at both the domestic and international levels. First, the formation of the national guard must be accompanied by a broader political push. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad must find ways to offer credible guarantees to the Sunni community that it will continue to have a place in political decisionmaking. In return, Sunnis must guarantee their commitment to the Iraqi state and its legitimately elected government, turning against the Islamic State and its allies through their service in the guard. Closely related, operational issues such as the chain of command between the regular army and the national guard must be established early on, to avoid mistrust and the chance for defections or rebellion.

Effective U.S. oversight of the training of the national guard can help temper the centrifugal effects of the force. Regionally, Washington must reach out to and coordinate with Sunni Arab allies and, through backdoor channels, with Iran to prevent regional states from using the guard or other militias as a cat’s paw to meddle in Iraqi affairs. There are not assurances of success in this venture. But given the very real danger the Islamic State poses, the national guard represents the best of a bad set of options.  

Ariel I. Ahram is assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs and the author Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State-Sponsored Militias (Stanford University Press, 2011).

The authors are grateful for the assistance of Ala’ Alrababa’h, a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.