Monday, May 22, 2006

Disband of Gold - To Rein Or Not To Reign?

Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has made some encouraging noises regarding the persistent problems associated with the proliferation of private, ethnic/sectarian militias throughout Iraq. The ubiquity of these militias threatens the sovereignty and stability of Iraq's already frail government by dissipating the state's monopoly on the use of force. Not to mention the fact that the militias - heavily influenced by foreign powers such as Iran, as well as narrow ethnic/sectarian (mostly Shiite) interests - lack direct accountability, and thus are not noted for their restraint or regard for issues of national unity. Reuters picks up on Maliki's statements [emphasis mine throughout]:

Two bomb attacks killed nine people in Baghdad to underline a new warning from Maliki that Iraq faces civil war if his government fails to rein in "militias" -- generally code for armed groups run by fellow Shi'ite Islamists in his cabinet.

Maliki warned that a failure to end the practice of major political parties controlling militia forces would be disastrous. "Weapons should be in the hands of the government ... Otherwise this will lead to the introduction of civil war."
Maliki is saying all the right things, but as the adage goes: easier said than done. There are obvious impediments to reining in, or disbanding, the militias: the miserable security situation that has plagued Iraq since the toppling of the regime has allowed these non-official forces to fill the vacuum and become entrenched as tools of the various political parties and factions. And many of those parties and factions are in Maliki's own ruling coalition of Shiite parties (UIA), or are looked upon as necessary allies to ensure the coalition's ability to govern (Kurds). So Maliki's latitude to act might be constrained by his political bedfellows.

It is natural to wonder whether Maliki could achieve such a bold initiative - which would anger and alienate so many allies - even if he had the will. And, unfortunately, there is also reason to question his will - or at least his interpretation of the phrase "rein in." About a month ago, the Los Angeles Times picked up on some of Maliki's earlier musings on the machinations of militia control (via Swopa):

Iraq's prime minister-designate continued to send mixed signals about militias, even as the U.S. ambassador said Sunday that disbanding the armed groups was the most important step toward preventing a civil war.

...In one of his first public speeches after his endorsement, Maliki promised to rein in the militias, but he said he would do so by adhering to a controversial law that requires making them part of the government's security forces.

...Maliki has suggested that militia members could get jobs with Iraqi security forces so that weapons would "only be in the hands of the government."
While bringing militia forces under one official, government-controlled banner would be a net positive, it would also create - or exacerbate - problems within the official security forces themselves. The heavy-handed, extra-judicial tactics adopted by many militia members prior to their integration could infuse the official forces with a troubling strain of bad behavior that would only heighten ethnic/sectarian tensions.

More importantly, the conflicting allegiances of the various militia members would not magically disappear upon the change in uniform, chain of command or official recognition. This could lead to a situation where significant portions of the army, police and other forces would remain only contingently loyal to the government - perpetually one step away from fragmentation, withdrawal and/or attempted coup.

Further, incorporating so many Shiite militias could further skew the ethnic/sectarian balance (or lack thereof) in the Iraqi armed forces. Along these lines, other statements from Shiite leaders quoted in that Los Angeles Times article give cause for concern:

Ali Adib, a senior member of the Islamic Dawa Party and a Shiite member of parliament for the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc, said in an interview Sunday that the militia problem was "exaggerated."

Besides, "we're not the only ones who are responsible for security," he said. American officials "let the elements of the past regime into the security forces. Even criminals that were released from the prisons were allowed into the security forces. We need to disinfect and clarify the security forces."
By "elements of the past regime" in the security forces, Ali Adib means Sunni elements. A dual-pronged approach of incorporating Shiite militias, while further purging Sunnis would be disastrous to the mission of creating a national, non-partisan military. A daunting mission under any circumstances.

Maliki's latest proclamations about "reining" in the militias came as a backdrop to an announcement by British officials regarding the goal of turning over coalition security responsibilities in southern Iraq to Iraqi security forces by year's end. This timing might give credence to the assumption that Maliki is looking to incorporate the militias rather than disband them. After all, where is he going to come up with all the extra forces needed to accomplish this?

If incorporation is indeed the plan, the trick will be to rein in these irregular forces, while maintaining the ability to reign over them as the sovereign - with sufficient support from political allies and control over potentially disloyal segments of the armed forces. While it might ultimately be better to have these forces inside the tent rather than outside it, getting this camel's nose under that tent carries its own risks.

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