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Iraq’s Militia Groups

Author: Lionel Beehner
October 26, 2006

Introduction

The presence of militias and death squads in Iraq threatens to drive a wedge between U.S. officials and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The U.S. military and Iraq’s government blame militias for the recent bout of mass kidnappings and sectarian killings. The prime minister has dismissed calls from Washington for a timetable or ultimatum for the Iraqi government to disband the militias. He also criticized a U.S.-led incursion into Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad and fertile breeding ground for militia members. Recent news reports suggest that major militias like the Mahdi Army may be splintering off into smaller, more localized militias whose loyalties lie elsewhere and whose tactics are more radicalized.   

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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. Many have taken up arms against Iraq's Sunni insurgents since the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Larger, more established militias, such as the Badr Brigade and the peshmerga, are tied to Iraq's leading political parties, organized along sectarian lines, and in existence to enforce order in their respective regions.

How many militias are in Iraq?

Estimates vary, but U.S. military and intelligence officials say there are at least twenty-three militias in operation, according to the Washington Post. They range in capability and effectiveness, and the majority of them are Shiite. Many are offshoots of larger organizations like the Mahdi Army that have grown more radicalized in recent months. Whereas in 2004 and 2005, these militia groups primarily targeted ex-Baathists, rival militia groups, or U.S. troops, now they target everyday Iraqis based on their ethno-religious sect. Some of them have names like Iraqiya Hezbollah and draw inspiration from the Lebanon-based militia group. 

What is the Mahdi Army?

The Mahdi Army, named after a Shiite messianic figure, is a militia of several thousand members loyal to the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Most of its membership consists of unemployed, young Shiites from Sadr City and southern Iraqi cities like Najaf. The group led two uprisings in 2004 against U.S. forces before agreeing to a ceasefire in October 2004. More recently it is accused of carrying out revenge killings and death-squad-style massacres against Sunnis. Some experts say the group is not an organized, disciplined unit with clear political objectives. ''I think the Sadrists are a social movement, not really so much an organization,'' Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. Mahdi followers have infiltrated Iraq’s interior and defense ministries. Some police cars in parts of Baghdad openly display the organization’s insignia. Loyalists to Sadr, who holds no formal political post, control as many as thirty seats in parliament, giving him a powerful stake in Iraqi politics.

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’s military during the Iran-Iraq war and allied itself with the U.S.-led coalition in the war of 2003. The peshmerga are now believed to comprise some 100,000 troops, and serve 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 Brigade?

It is the Iranian-trained wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq. The organization was built by Iraqi Shiite defectors and soldiers captured by Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Its members were funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. 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 remained armed, and today operates mainly in Shiite-controlled southern Iraq, where a number of regional governments are dominated by SCIRI representatives. SCIRI openly advocates the creation of a separate, Shiite-run region comprising nine oil-rich provinces in southern Iraq. Badr fighters have repeatedly clashed with British forces in Basra and Mahdi Army forces in the region. 

Where do these militias get their funding?

Mostly from Iran, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Washington Post in March. Experts say Iranian intelligence—which has longstanding ties to Iraq’s former Shiite opposition leaders, many of whom were exiled to Iran in the 1980s and 1990s—funnels arms and cash to rival militia groups like the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade, partly to maintain a level of chaos in Iraq, partly to support their fellow Shiites, and partly to drive U.S. forces from the country.

Why can’t the Iraqi government dismantle these militias?

Some experts say the militias provide vital security in places rife with sectarian violence and therefore many officials in the Shiite-led government tacitly support them. Others say that Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq’s population, are in favor of militias because, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they act as protectors and providers of basic services. “It’s a myth to say the militias are bad for Iraq,” says Abbas Kadhim, assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “They are the only ones providing anything meaningful for Iraqis. The problem [for Iraqis] is choosing between anarchy and a militia that protects you for a price.”

What is the official U.S. policy on militias?

Although American forces have fought alongside Iraqi militias and commando units in the past, officially the U.S. government opposes the presence of unsanctioned militias. At various times, U.S. officials have encouraged the interior ministry to retrain and recruit militia members into the police forces to help fight the Sunni-led insurgency, according to Matthew Sherman, a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. In 2004, there was a plan by the U.S. military to capture or kill Sadr before the militia leader reached a truce and promised to join the political process.  

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