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IRAQ: Militia Groups

Author: Lionel Beehner
June 9, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What's the status of Iraq's various militia groups?

Despite repeated U.S. requests for them to disband, Iraq's various ethnic and sectarian militias continue to exist, and in some cases, are on a path to being recognized as part of Iraq's security apparatus. On June 8, for example, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani praised an Iran-trained Shiite militia known as the Badr Organization and the Kurdish peshmerga security force. The continued operation of these militias raises fears among experts that security responsibilities in Iraq will increasingly be enforced not by a unified, U.S.-trained army, but by a diverse group of potentially feuding militias that could deepen the nation's sectarian divisions.

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What are the various militia groups in Iraq?

They vary, experts say. There are a growing number of small, homegrown, paramilitary-style brigades being formed by local tribes, religious leaders, and political parties. Some battle Iraq's largely Sunni insurgency alongside official Interior and Defense ministry troops; others operate without official assistance or sanction. The larger, more established militias, such as the Badr Organization and peshmerga, are tied to Iraq's leading political parties, organized along sectarian lines, and enforce order in their respective regions. The relationship of these groups to the official U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces is variable and complex.

Who are the peshmerga?

They are a Kurdish liberation army whose name translates literally to "those who face death." Elements of the force, whose roots stretch back to the 1920s, fought against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and provided military backup during the U.S.-led coalition's ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The peshmerga is now believed to comprise some 100,000 troops, and serves as the primary security force for the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Iraq's Kurds have repeatedly insisted that the peshmerga remain intact as a fighting force as a condition of their remaining loyal to Baghdad instead of seeking an independent state. Kurdish officials have also requested that Iraq's interim government security forces operate in Iraqi Kurdistan only with the prior permission of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

What is the Badr Organization?

It is the Iranian-trained wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest Shiite party in Iraq. During the U.S.-led occupation government's crackdown on militia groups in 2003, the 10,000-strong militia changed its name from the Badr Brigade to the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development and pledged to disarm. The group, however, has reportedly remained armed, and today operates mainly in Shiite-controlled southern Iraq, where a number of regional governments are dominated by SCIRI representatives. One of Badr's recent offshoots is a feared, elite commando unit linked to the Iraqi Interior Ministry called the Wolf Brigade. Sunni leaders have recently accused the Badr Organization of revenge killings against Sunni clerics and unlawful kidnappings.

What other Shiite militia groups are there?

Among them:

  • The Mahdi Army. Loyal to the young, anti-U.S. cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, this group of thousands of armed loyalists fought U.S. forces for much of last year before agreeing to an October 2004 ceasefire. Recent news reports suggest the militia, which controls much of Sadr City, a Baghdad slum of some 2.5 million Shiites, may be regrouping and rearming itself. Muqtada al-Sadr has refused to participate directly in the Iraqi government, though some of his followers were elected to seats on the Iraqi National Assembly.
  • Defenders of Khadamiya. This group is comprised of roughly 120 loyalists to Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada al-Sadr and a Shiite cleric who ran on former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's ticket in the January 30 elections. The brigade was formed to guard a shrine in northern Baghdad popular among Shiites, and is one of a number of similar local forces that have emerged.
What is the Wolf Brigade?

The most feared and effective commando unit in Iraq, experts say. Formed last October by a former three-star Shiite general and SCIRI member who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Walid, the Wolf Brigade is composed of roughly 2,000 fighters, mostly young, poor Shiites from Sadr City. Members of the group reportedly earn as much as 700,000 Iraqi dinars, or $400, per month, a large sum in Iraqi terms. They dress in garb--olive uniform and red beret--redolent of Saddam Hussein's elite guard; their logo is a menacing-looking wolf.

How did the Wolf Brigade earn its reputation?

Last December, the Wolf Brigade--backed up by the Iraqi army and U.S. military--achieved notoriety after launching a series of counterinsurgency operations in Mosul, a Sunni stronghold northwest of Baghdad. Their popularity was further buoyed by the success of Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, a primetime show on U.S.-funded Al Iraqiya television that features live interrogations of Iraqi insurgents by commandos. In one recent show, Abu Walid questioned around 30 shabbily dressed suspects, some clutching photos of their victims, waiting to confess their crimes.

Is the brigade controversial?

Yes. Some Iraqis accuse the Wolf Brigade of targeting Palestinian refugees in Iraq, using torture to extract confessions from prisoners, and slaying six Sunni clerics. Walid denies the charges, which have raised sectarian tensions. Human-rights groups also accuse creators of the counterterrorism television show of violating the Geneva Conventions by publicly humiliating the detainees. Among Shiites, however, there are patriotic songs devoted to the group. The brigade's fierceness has given it a mythical aura: Iraqi parents reportedly warn their children about the "wolves."

Are there other commando units?

A growing number of counterterrorism commando units are cropping up in Iraq, experts say. Many of them are modeled after the Wolf Brigade, with names like the Tiger, Snake, or Scorpion brigades, and operate out of makeshift quarters like a bombed-out bunker, a former girls' school, and an aircraft hangar, news reports say. It's not clear if these groups are under the aegis of the Interior Ministry.

Are there any Sunni-led commando units?

Yes. At least one counterinsurgency unit is headed by a former officer of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The Special Police Commandos, like the Wolf Brigade, have a reputation for brutality, but the group is also considered one of Iraq's most effective and well-disciplined counterinsurgency units. It was formed last September by General Adnan Thavit, a 63-year-old Sunni and former intelligence officer in the Iraqi Air Force who was thrown in prison for plotting a coup against Saddam Hussein in 1996. Armed by the Iraqi government, the brigade has heavy ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, and AK-47 assault rifles. Most of its 5,000 members are hand-selected by Thavit and are former members of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard. Experts say they have been an effective fighting force because they are well-trained, know the lay of the land, and can gather quality intelligence in places like the Sunni triangle because of their close ties to neighborhood clans. In a May New York Times Magazine article on the Special Police Commandos, Peter Maass wrote, "The integration of the commandos into the security forces staunches one flow of experienced fighters into the insurgency."

Are the militia sanctioned by Iraq's government?

Some are, but not all. Though largely autonomous, commando units like the Wolf Brigade are used in conjunction with Iraq's army and police forces, including special-ops units like the 36th Commando Battalion and 40th Brigade. Their funding and training come from the Iraqi government. Nominal control of these brigades falls under the ministries of Interior and Defense. The peshmerga, on the other hand, are under Kurdish authority. The extent of official government support for the Badr Organization is unclear, but may be growing. (Iraq's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is himself a former high-ranking official in the Badr Brigades.) The government is not believed to support the Mahdi Army and other private militia groups that oppose the government's authority.

Why does the Iraqi government support some militias?

Part of the reason, experts say, is to fill in the security gaps left by the local police and army, who have a reputation for ineffectiveness and corruption. Their use also reflects a clear strategy by the Iraqi government to "get tough" on insurgents, says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "[These groups] are willing to use brutal methods and have emerged because Iraq's security forces are not coming along as expected," he says.

What is the U.S. view of the militias?

In the past, the U.S. government has said it opposes the use of unsanctioned militias. But on June 8, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, told reporters that the Iraqi government's growing use of militias "is an Iraqi issue that they will decide and that they will deal with." Last year, the U.S. military fought alongside the Wolf Brigade and other commando units in counterinsurgency operations in Mosul and Samarra. Some experts credit the U.S. military with giving assistance to commando units in the form of money, training, and equipment. "Our policy [in Iraq] is to equip those who are the most effective fighters," says Thomas X. Hammes, a former Marine officer and counterinsurgency expert. "[These commando units] may be a marriage of convenience and ultimately may be absorbed into the army or disbanded."

What risks do the militia and commando units pose?

Some experts question their allegiance to the national government, because they are generally drawn exclusively from sectarian or ethnic communities, whether Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd. In Iraq, as anywhere, increased sectarian tension can result when members of one ethnic group or community are charged with policing and arresting another. "There's a concern that what they're creating [are] armed militia[s] with no loyalty to the national government," Hammes says. "I think it's better to go with an organized national army, because otherwise you get militia[s], and that's a first step toward a civil war." Some experts also predict rising tensions between Iraqi army officers and leaders of semi-sanctioned militia. Others fear that a Shiite-led Interior Ministry may seek to purge its ranks of Sunnis, which could prompt them to join the insurgency.

— by Lionel Beehner, staff writer, cfr.org

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