Deadlock following Iraq’s October 10th, 2021 elections shows that control over the security forces remains the country’s most important political issue. The parliamentary block led by Shia politician and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr won a clear plurality of seats. However, a bloc of Iran-backed parties refuses to allow them to form a government.
At the heart of the disagreement is Sadr’s call to demobilize the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), a loose conglomeration of as many as 150,000 fighters mobilized in 2014 to defend Iraqis against the Islamic State (IS). After the military victory over IS in 2017, the militias continued to operate, entrenching themselves in daily life by providing public services and spawning parties to compete in parliamentary elections. These parties, and the militia leaders who make up their candidates, refuse to accept political change that threatens their grasp power.
The resulting deadlock has prevented a new government from forming. In the weeks following the election, PMF supporters blocked entrances to Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” and clashes with security forces led to more than 150 injuries and two deaths. In scenes eerily similar to those which followed the United States’ 2020 presidential election, supporters of the Coordination Framework – a pro-Iran, Shia bloc of parties which one the second most votes after the Sadrists – reject any election outcome which strips them of power, and claim that elections were illegitimate despite no evidence of fraud.
The controversy over the PMFs is not new. The four previous prime ministers have each attempted to harness the PMFs by either outlawing them or bringing them under their office’s authority. Each time, PMF leaders dig in their heels, unwilling to give up the power and prestige of commanding a well-armed militia.
In this regard, the current contentiousness over the PMFs has parallels to the reconstruction of the Iraqi police in the fledgling democracy’s early years. After US forces dismantled Saddam’s police in 2003, clerics, politicians, and warlords competed for control over the state’s most valuable resource: jobs. Employment in the police came with a stable salary backed by the international coalition, and access to weapons that could keep one’s family alive in the absence of a functional state. Not surprisingly, Iraqi politicians fought tooth and nail to secure these valuable positions for their supporters.
Although the primary cleavage in today’s dispute is not sectarian, today’s deadlock has essentially the same cause: political elites want to empower militia members who are loyal directly to them, not to the state, and they want the government to pay for them. Regardless of whether the militias are Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, or any other sect, Iraqi civilians pay the price when they are policed by militias that answer not to the democratically elected government but to individual political elites.
How can Iraqi politicians break their deadlock? One of the lessons learned from the early 2000s is that completely disbanding the police and military to rebuild them from scratch is unwise. For better or for worse, the PMFs are the primary security providers for much of the country. To break the deadlock, the political factions must find a way to share power by integrating the militias into the state forces. The key to keeping politicians happy is to retain a sufficient number of their supporters on state payrolls. The key to breaking down the personalization of security is to integrate members of different militias into shared police and military units, mixing and matching commanders and rank-and-file members from different militias to avoid simply transplanting PMF units into the government. A reorganization which achieves both characteristics may serve as a realistic steppingstone towards depersonalizing security in Iraq.