Iraq and democracy in the age of militias

Iraq and the path to democracy in the age of militias
7 min read
05 Aug, 2021
Opinion: As independent candidates in the run up to Iraq's elections are targeted, Ammar Suad discusses why democracy in Iraq has never been realised and explores the central role of militias in Iraq's political landscape.
Iraqi militias are a huge part of the country's political landscape [Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images]

In 1958, Mohammed Hadid, the father of architect Zaha Hadid, became the first finance minister in the Iraqi Republic. He was ushered in by the officers, in particular then-Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, as was considered one of the faces of nationalist liberalism at the time. It was part of an attempt to build a democratic alternative to the limited one established during the era of the Iraqi monarchy.

Hopes of a democracy

Two years on, Hadid argued with his old friend in the National Democratic Party, Kamil Chadirji, over whether a regime led by an army officer ruling singlehandedly could lead to democracy. The latter was convinced that democracy was impossible with Qasim, and left the government, while the former insisted that there was a chance, deeming it too early to give up, and stayed.

"With the beginnings of the republic, came the birth of the militias"

Democracy continued to elude Iraq, for many reasons. Qasim's personal ambition and the ideological goals of Gamal Abdel Nasser both played decisive roles. Iraq was to remain under military rule until Saddam Hussein's rise to leadership. Under his control, the ruling regime shifted from being solely military into a complex system also governed by tight family ties and a powerful security apparatus.

The birth of the militias

However, this is only one side of the story: with the beginnings of the republic, came the birth of the militias. With the rise of totalitarianisms: communism and Baathism, a desire to implement the law through party legitimacy was born. The first Iraqi militia was the Popular Resistance, belonging to the Communist Party.

Implicated in violence and bloodshed from the beginning, its slogan was: "There is no conspiracy for which the rope will be absent," implying a form of torture in which someone is tied to a vehicle and dragged along the ground, calculated to spread fear among its enemies.

Qasim turned on the communists after they repeatedly carried out violent attacks, freezing their activities and militia, but they escaped prosecution. Qasim's decision not to prosecute the communists did not indicate a transition to democracy, nor the rule of law. Nevertheless, Hadid felt at this time that there was hope. He was mistaken - there was none.

Qasim's era ended in February 1963, when the Baathists seized power in a coup. They established their own militia - the National Guard - whose violence far surpassed that of the Popular Resistance. The historian Hanna Batatu, in his book "Iraq", indicates that the number of those killed during the coup has been estimated at 5,000.

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My father often told me the following story: When he was 13, and Abdul Salam Arif (president at the time) clamped down on the National Guard and opened up the militia's prisons, my father entered one of these prisons to see a woman's breast nailed to the wall; a testimony to the horrific nature of the torture and executions carried out by the National Guard.

The militias as a regime appendage

The militia as a regime asset returned later. With the Baathist's second ascent to power in 1968, secret organisations like Jihaz al-Haneen ('Instrument of Yearning' - an underground security-intelligence organisation belonging to the Baathists) appeared, followed by the 'Popular Army' in the 80s, and 'Fedayeen Saddam' in the 90s.

It's no coincidence that al-Qaeda and Jaysh al-Mahdi recruits wore black after 2003: the same colour Saddam's fedayeen wore. It signals a thread of continuity based on a religious narrative full of references to "black banners".

The year 2003 marked a new chapter in the history of Iraq's militias: the anti-government militias versus the pro-government militias.

Iraq's clans

Of course, the history of the militias cannot be defined solely as religious, or confined to the republic, because the armed clan represents another form of parastatal armed group. The clans have existed since before the Iraqi state was founded in 1920. Indeed, King Faisal I complained that the army had far fewer weapons than the clans.

"When Iraq's dictatorship was brought to its violent end - one manufactured by external forces - it signalled the collapse of a regime that had obliterated all civilised alternatives"

The clans are a distinguishing feature in Iraqi society. When Iraq's dictatorship was brought to its violent end - one manufactured by external forces - it signalled the collapse of a regime that had obliterated all civilised alternatives.

Iraq had no independent civil society or middle class, as those who would have constituted them had mostly been exiled. When a strong government collapses in a state which lacks these elements, the country will revert to the control of natural or traditional forces.

After 2003 - clans and religion gain ground

In Iraq's case, clan ties and the intense religiosity of the desperate played a decisive role in shaping the landscape that followed the toppling of the regime in 2003. These two forces had strengthened during the 90s, through policies enacted by Saddam Hussein himself. During the siege, clannism was encouraged: some of the new sheikhs, elevated through Saddam's policies, were dubbed "the 1990s sheikhs".

Religious piety was encouraged through the so-called "faith campaign", with tax exemptions awarded to those who built mosques as well as allowing the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr's father, to practice his popular religious activities, before he turned hostile to the regime.

Iraq and democracy in the age of militias
A mask-clad youth walks in front of a large poster of Iraq's populist Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr [AFP via Getty Images]

What happened after 2003 is therefore connected to those developments. Democracy as a term is associated with that year and it had a heavy heritage to contend with. The two main forces before 2003 remained decisive actors afterwards. The clan remained armed and powerful, and the militias also strengthened their presence.

Some of them had existed prior to 2003 - the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia Badr Corps are the two most obvious examples. The Peshmerga transformed into an official army tasked with protecting the region of Kurdistan (in theory part of the Iraqi army), and the Badr Corps were officially incorporated into the army.

Emergence of anti-government militias

However, a different sort of paramilitary group also emerged: militias opposed to the government. These sought to gain influence in or to control the regime. Alongside al-Qaeda, in 2004, Muqtada al-Sadr's Shia Jaysh al-Mahdi was established, carrying arms against foreign and Iraqi forces, as well as against its Iraqi opponents. A range of Sunni militias appeared too, like Muhammed's Army, the Companions' Army, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

Between 2003 and 2011 - the year the Americans were set to withdraw - the militias multiplied uncontrollably. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki played a central role in this rapid proliferation. He helped paramilitary organisations, like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq ('Band of the Righteous'), emerge.

"Between 2003 and 2011 the militias multiplied uncontrollably. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki played a central role in this rapid proliferation"

He also bolstered the clans' power and influence to protect his position. While promoting the slogan "a state of law", he in fact rendered it meaningless by endorsing policies that gave support to anti-state actors. All of this was topped off in 2014 with the decision to form the Hashd al-Sha'bi (the Popular Mobilization Units), which became a military force competing with the army itself.

The militia mentality

The militia mentality shaped the government's vision. Democracy as a concept was reduced to ballot boxes labelled "Vote". However, the concept that Iraqis had a genuine vote was, and remains, an illusion. People are tightly controlled by forces which dictate how they live, act, and vote. Aside from that, there are areas dominated by internecine fighting in which rival groups secretly exchange votes to preserve their rule. Even when this is uncovered, no one has the power to do anything about it.

Of course, the militias are not the only obstacle preventing a transition into democracy. There is an incapacity to deal with democracy as a structure entailing mutual support rather than just ballot boxes: the democratic tradition has been stripped of its foundations, namely the rule of law, human rights, and civil liberties.

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To make matter worse, Iraqi democracy was not organic - it was brought to Iraq with bombs.

These factors are debilitating, however, they remain secondary to Iraq's main obstacle, which is the use of arms to coerce.

Change has been elusive, not because it is impossible, but because there are guns pointed in every direction, ensuring that conditions remain unstable.

The elections of 2018 revealed that the winners were those with the weapons: those aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fatah Alliance led by Hashd al-Sha’bi. Both factions are now are trying to repeat this tactic, counting on a division of influence, geographically and politically.

Meanwhile, protests are continuous, as activists are eliminated one by one by armed groups known to everyone but ignored by the law.

Why? Because in Iraq, the militias are the law.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko.