The New York Times

March 8, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

Iraq's Little Armies



WHILE the violence that followed the bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra in Iraq last month has abated, the larger problem it exposed continues: ever since Saddam Hussein fell, armed militias have roamed the country dispensing justice and retribution to other ethnic and religious groups as they see fit. Ideally, not only can the government and its American supporters stop this vigilantism, but they can also channel it into a productive role within the legitimate security services of the fledgling state.

Having spent two years in Baghdad as the American policy adviser to Iraq's Interior Ministry, I have a sense of just how strong these militias really are and just how destabilizing they can be. While there is no official count, in 2004 we held negotiations with what we considered the nine major groups, which in all represented tens of thousands of armed men.

For the most part they are grass-roots forces without uniforms, bases or standardized training. They appear at makeshift checkpoints throughout the country, guarding the perimeter of hospitals and airports, and persecute their rivals under the guise of "neighborhood watches."

Perhaps most troubling, since the Shiite-led government came to power last May, militia members have entered the Iraqi Army and police forces en masse. The danger is that many feel stronger allegiance to their militias and religious sects than to the state. One group, the Badr Organization, which is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and fought Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran, has slowly gained virtual control of the Interior Ministry; another, the followers of the young anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, has gained significant influence over chiefs of police and governors' offices in the south of the country.

It is all too possible that these and other militias will become more powerful than the Iraqi Army and police forces. After all, during the sectarian gang attacks since the Samarra bombing, Iraqis reflexively turned to their tribes and family connections for security, having lost faith in the central government to protect them.

So what can be done? Unfortunately, the militias are part of the social fabric in Iraq. They cannot be simply eliminated or disarmed. But their members who take government security jobs can be identified and monitored. Rather than asking them to disavow their ties to religion and clan which would be meaningless rhetoric given Iraqi tribal culture we should have them clearly state their allegiances when entering government service, giving assurances that such disclosure would not harm their careers.

While this would not, of course, solve the problem of mixed loyalties, it would give the Iraqi government and the coalition advisers a sense of how deeply ensconced militia figures are within the federal ranks and which ministries and agencies are most dominated by them. Over the long term the government could monitor its hiring to ensure that no agency or police department or army unit reaches a tipping point at which a particular militia group might take effective control.

There are also several carrots the government could proffer to draw irregular forces into legitimate service. For example, in its final months in power the Coalition Provisional Authority negotiated several pacts with the militias; now is the time to follow through on them. These include pension programs for those joining security services that recognize time served fighting the Saddam Hussein regime; literacy programs and vocational training for those who would drop their arms; and job placement services for those who wanted government work outside the military and police.

Another way to incorporate the militias would be to revive the Shrine Police Force, which was a division within the Interior Ministry during the Baathist era charged with protecting the hundreds of religious shrines, mosques and important holy sites throughout the country. While renewing this guard would inject religion into the security forces in general, units comprised solely of either Sunnis or Shiites would guard their respective religions' shrines this seems a small price to pay for giving religiously based militias a sense of national participation and for providing special protection for sites that, as we saw in Samarra, are prized targets of the insurgents. (Of course, any such deal would have to be very specific in limiting the role of such militias to the few square blocks surrounding the shrines.)

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the militia culture is that many government ministers now have an unchecked power to install their own people throughout their fiefs. Over the past two months the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the party that controls the Badr Brigades) has purged the ministry of officials from outside his militant group. He apparently intends to remain in control of the ministry even if he is forced, under the next government, to resign his post.

One solution to such plots would be to define the number of political positions within each ministry that turn over with each new government, thus allowing a larger body of professionals to remain in their jobs and work without fear of political reprisal.

Unless the various ministries, army battalions and police agencies can find a way to put the national good ahead of their parochial interests, the American authorities and the central government in Baghdad may have to resort to withholding pay and equipment.

While American officials can use their purse strings to spur change, the ultimate solution lies with the Iraqis themselves, and the level of influence we have over them is reducing with each passing day. We can no longer put off the day of reckoning with the militias; until they are made subservient to the elected government, there will be no stability in Iraq.

Matt Sherman was an adviser at the United States Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006.