Militias, Vigilantes, Death Squads

Charles Tripp on the Grammar of Violence in Iraq

At a Downing Street meeting in November 2002 attended by Tony Blair, Jack Straw and six academics familiar with Iraq and the Middle East, two things became clear. The first was that Straw thought post-Saddam Iraq would be much like post-Soviet Russia and could thus be easily pigeonholed as that strange creature, a ‘transitional society’. Either he had been persuaded of this by the recycled Cold Warriors clustering round the Bush administration, or they had failed to inform their ‘key ally’ of their determination to dismantle Iraq’s state and security structures. More ominously, Blair seemed wholly uninterested in Iraq as a complex and puzzling political society, wanting confirmation merely that deposing Saddam Hussein would remove ‘evil’ from the country.

Quite apart from some of the inappropriate and frankly bizarre ideas that were driving the war train, the lack of interest in Iraq and its social order were symptomatic of the attitude of the US and its allies towards the country over the two previous decades. Whether as a result of moral unease or intellectual limitation, the political as opposed to the humanitarian effects of the punitive sanctions in force since 1990 had been wholly misunderstood. Rather than weakening Saddam Hussein’s regime, they had redoubled its power, deepening and reinforcing the networks of the ‘shadow state’ that lay behind Iraq’s vulnerable and degraded public institutions.

The economy of need that the sanctions brought about meant that connections with the privileged became key, thus giving vast power not only to the inner circle around the president, but also to the concentric circles of co-opted intermediaries, who spread into every community, and whose freedom of action was such that they had the power of life and death over those who looked to them for assistance. The sanctions thus bound swathes of Iraqi society into a system in which an outward show of conformity, often disguising fierce communal or local loyalties, guaranteed access to scarce resources. Secular Iraqi professionals, several generations removed from their rural forebears, found themselves swearing allegiance to the sheikh of ‘their’ tribe or submitting to the local imam in an attempt to find protection. Both winners and losers were systematically brutalised and humiliated in the process, fostering forms of behaviour that have been only too evident in the past three years, since the overarching control of the centre evaporated.

Blind to the existence of a shadow state behind the public state, the US and its ally, as they prepared to invade, seemed to focus exclusively on the removal of the obvious personnel and institutions of the Baathist regime as a means to ensure the ‘security’ of the state, the region and the population. From this perspective, the only relationship between the Iraqi state and the people was one of violence. Once the source of that violence was removed, so the thinking went, the benefits of peaceful, prosperous coexistence would be clear to all. That the British Department for International Development suddenly decided as late as the third week of March 2003 that it needed to commission a ‘literature review’ on the nature and working of government in Iraq suggests a growing suspicion that there might be more to the regime than the White House or Downing Street had led them to believe.

‘Security’, defined in military terms and suggesting a military solution, was used to justify the invasion and subsequent occupation, as it had been used to justify the UN sanctions. In 2002-3, continuing concerns about security in this sense, combined with the ambition to remove a vicious regime, were used to justify the build-up to war. ‘Freedom’ was the other term bandied about, but it was to be achieved by massive violence, as the codename for the invasion – ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – made unequivocally clear. Of course, there were other notions driving the government in Washington that had more to do with the national security of the US itself. Yet more than three years later, and despite the overwhelming violence of the invasion and occupation, ‘security’ remains at the forefront of every discussion of the future of Iraq. At the same time, the ways in which the security problem has been viewed and handled have created a situation in which all the original concerns have been made more acute.

Last year, sponsors close to the Bush administration set up the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker, to try to work out the options – realistic rather than simply desirable – now facing the US and its allies. Securing Iraq was part of their brief, but ensuring the security of the US and its interests in the event of a future withdrawal of US forces was no less important. Inevitably, this meant redefining what the administration is trying to achieve, as well as redefining ‘security’ – or at least simply acknowledging what it has come to mean in the context of Iraqi politics. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of the mid-term elections, and his replacement as secretary of defense by Robert Gates, a member of Baker’s group, appears to testify to such a change.

‘Security’ in Iraq seems to have been reduced to its most basic meaning of safety from physical harm. Whether it’s a matter of Iraqi government personnel, of communities and neighbourhoods, of oil supplies and economic infrastructure, of US and allied forces, or of individuals across Iraq facing suicide bombs, criminal extortion, sectarian reprisal or trigger-happy foreign forces, preventing terrible violence has understandably become the constant preoccupation of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments and of their American and British protectors.

Other kinds of security, of equal, perhaps even greater concern to most of the population, are largely off the radar of those who dominate Iraqi politics, whether in power or in opposition. Economic security, the security of vulnerable individuals in oppressive domestic and local settings, or the attainment of the well-being of families: all of these go unseen, or are made to take second place while the ‘hard’ security situation is addressed by the authorities. On the one hand, public devotion to the cause of ‘security’ is used as a smokescreen behind which to steal vast amounts of money that might have made a difference to the lives of Iraqis, as Ed Harriman has documented in his three pieces in this paper.[*] On the other, the insecurity, the injury, the disillusionment and the fear that all this has bred, attended to by brave and under-resourced NGOs, could tell us something about the real, underlying ‘security problem’ in Iraq – and its consequences.

It is now said that foreign forces will withdraw when the Iraqi armed forces are able to command at least as much firepower as the US forces currently in the country – and presumably use it more effectively. This is what Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, seemed to be referring to in November when he responded to Bush’s assertion that the US would stay in Iraq until ‘the job is complete’ by stating that Iraqi forces will be ready to assume control of Iraqi security by the end of this year.

Ordinary Iraqis have paid a terrible price for this stance, as was made plain in the recent study published in the Lancet, which suggested that as many civilians have died since 2003 as a result of the conflict as soldiers died during the eight-year war with Iran. More worrying for the longer term are the political consequences of the strategies which are being used to counter the violence of resistance and dissent. The British and American army officers charged with dispensing the violence that will make Iraq ‘secure’ are increasingly aware of this and some are now openly suggesting that their own presence is part of the problem.

In part, though only in part, the violence that pervades much of Iraqi society, and the ‘securitisation’ of Iraqi politics that is both its cause and consequence, has been due to the various forms of armed resistance that constitute ‘the insurgency’. The organisations that make up these networks have been largely blamed for the ‘security problem’, which isn’t surprising, given the violence they deploy against the US and its allies, against Iraqis seen to be serving the US-led project, and against the communities that are seen to be the main beneficiaries of the new order, particularly the Shia.

These armed groups, which have different affiliations, have brought violence to every part of the country. Revived Baathist networks have mobilised along lines established in Saddam Hussein’s shadow state, where personal trust was as much a matter of life and death as it is today. Well armed, well financed and better organised month by month, these organisations have a range of targets. Called by some al-Awdah (‘the return’), a name that is intended as much to frighten as to designate a distinct grouping, they have also taken on a variety of nationalist and Islamic labels to attract support – which is growing along with disillusionment with postwar Iraq.

Realistically, their aim is not to return to power directly by force of arms, but rather to impress on those who now enjoy military superiority that Iraq cannot be governed unless a deal is done with the insurgents. They may also intend to create the conditions that would allow a ruthless vanguard party to exercise a power in excess of its numerical strength. A politics of conspiracy within the security forces, set against a background of widespread dissatisfaction with the inability of representative institutions to create jobs or generate economic growth, sharpened by resentment of foreign powers and their perceived agents in government, has been fertile ground for authoritarian parties in Iraq and elsewhere.

Sometimes this apparently secular resistance has acted in conjunction with ideologically very different groups of Islamists (or ‘jihadists’, in the language of the ‘war on terror’). These armed cohorts, made up of young men, both Kurdish and Arab, from Iraq, and from other Arab countries, have operated with considerable success – if success is measured by the gruesome count of car bombs and suicide bombings.[†]

Crucial, however, for the political future of Iraq and for the kind of state that is now emerging there – and which will be left behind when the foreign forces depart – are the markers that the current responses to the problem of violence are now laying down. One important factor is the proliferation of ‘official’ security forces in Iraq. There are 150,000 or so US troops, and nearly 9000 British and allied forces in the country. They are supplemented by the Iraqi state security forces, which are being developed in a variety of ways, all of them presaging a troubled future. A relatively small army is being put together, specifically designed to act as an internal security force. Given the range, reach and capability of those willing to use violence against the Iraqi authorities and their allies, this role looks set to be the force’s main one for some time to come.

Politically, this will mean the reinforcement of communal and regional recruitment patterns, already established in various units of the allegedly ‘national’ army. It will also tempt politicians in Baghdad to use the army against troublesome provinces. In addition to the 112 battalions of the Iraqi national army, which now include the National Guard units (provincially recruited), there are the Special Operations Forces, comprising the Counter-Terrorist Forces and the Commando Battalion, control of which has been disputed between the prime minister’s office and the minister of defence.

However, the most baroque proliferation of security forces has taken place in the bodies which are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior (largely controlled by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s party, SCIRI). As well as the regular police, there are now a Mechanised Police battalion, Police Commando battalions, Public Order battalions, a National Police Emergency Response Unit and three Special Border Police battalions, associated, significantly, with communities that straddle Iraq’s borders. Then there are 18 provincial SWAT teams and the large, if vaguely defined, Facilities Protection Service. By October 2006, these totalled some 308,000 men, nominally trained and equipped, moving towards a target of 325,000 by the end of the year. Even so, General George Casey, since replaced as the US ground commander in Iraq, said that another 100,000 men should be trained.

And these are not the only armed forces active in the country. One of the grimmer features of post-invasion Iraq has been the prominence of heavily armed, often violent militias, answering to particular political factions, some communally and tribally based, others driven by nationalist and ethnic feeling. As the old security structures were dismantled, militias were set up to defend – and control – particular localities. In due course, they regularised their activity within the new national and political framework by transforming themselves into political organisations, and putting candidates forward for election, adding to the deceptively plural array of parties and lists which contested the various elections of 2005.

Other militias came out of party organisations, building sometimes on an existing nucleus of secretive, armed resistance, either in exile, as with the Badr Brigade in the service of SCIRI, or underground in Iraq itself, as in the case of al-Dawah. Yet others, such as the Jaish al-Mahdi, associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, appeared for the first time and soon grew in strength, openly carrying arms acquired from the vast abandoned arsenals of the defeated Iraqi army.

The proliferation of militias came to be accepted, and parties such as Fadilah or Hizbullah in the south, or the Sunni Islamist parties, as well as the tribal networks across rural Iraq, built up their own armed forces, adding to their weight in an increasingly ruthless political struggle. These groups had close connections to village and neighbourhood organisations of armed vigilantes. Rather than fade away with the gradual re-emergence of the Iraqi police force, they affiliated themselves with political organisations, infiltrated the security forces and defended their communities against units taken over by their enemies.

This was the context in which the notorious death squads began to operate, with their ethnic and sectarian as well as overtly political hit lists. In many cases there was a crossover with the ‘official’ security forces of the Ministry of the Interior, in particular, thereby accelerating the creation of local self-defence organisations. The general picture is one of linked militias and armed groups, operating in what is aptly described as the ‘ghost politics’ of the new Iraq. The shadow state has effectively been revived, but in a devolved form, fragmented, fluid, no longer controlled by the centre, but often incorporating networks and personnel that were active twenty years ago.

The two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, which field the largest militias in Iraq, are made up of well-organised survivors of all these processes. They emerged originally from the long Kurdish struggle against central government in Baghdad, and were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, as they fought each other on behalf of their respective political leaders. When those leaders realised they had more to gain by co-operating, they came together, ostensibly to form the security forces of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, but they have by no means lost their identities, or a sense of the causes they serve. Indeed, they constitute the model for a future Iraq of the oligarchs.

The final element in this picture of an Iraq patrolled, dissected and dominated by heavily armed groups – militias, vigilantes, official security forces and semi-official battalions – are the various private security firms that have been employed by state and private interests since 2003. Estimates vary greatly as to the number of people involved in this highly dangerous, if highly rewarded work, but it seems to be in the tens of thousands. Some are Iraqi, some are expatriates – generally retired service personnel. Concerns have been raised about the accountability of these outfits and the controls, or lack of them, on their use of physical force against the Iraqi population. There have also been questions, not only about their links with Western forces but about the links between the Iraqis they employ and the local and regional militias which are in a position either to facilitate or to jeopardise their work.

Random targeting, gratuitous torture, mutilation and death seem to accompany the more understandable – from the perspective of the national resistance – attacks on American and British forces and on government personnel. Yet it can plausibly be argued that the violence isn’t random at all, but part of an elaborate, if terrible language of power. In this sense, it is not merely the main threat to ‘security’, but also an outgrowth of the ways in which security responses have been organised. These have provided the framework, the grammar as it were, for the kinds of violence witnessed in Iraq.

It is a language that appears to be geared to two main ends. The immediate aim, which shapes the kinds of violence being used, seems to be to create the strategic ground for a civil war. Neighbourhoods are being ‘cleansed’, not simply for reasons of sectarian or ethnic hatred, although that may make the task easier, but in order to map out territorially strategic positions. In Baghdad, quarters are being purged of one community or another in order to create ‘safe zones’ and to avoid being outflanked or undermined by a fifth column. The encirclement of the capital by rival forces – an inner circle controlled by the US and government forces and an ‘outer circle’ increasingly under the power of those insurgents who control the roads linking the capital to the rest of the country – has had terrible effects on communities from Baquba to Iskandariyya. But this positioning, with all the violence it entails, is not an end in itself. It is also intended, paradoxically, to avoid the necessity for open civil war.

Each side is still seeking to impress on the other that it cannot take everything, that its enemies are so formidable that some kind of deal – to share or devolve power, to divide the spoils – is required. The problem is that this message is only intermittently getting through. For the insurgents, watching the political disarray in the US and the failure of various US security plans, there is hope that the US and its local allies are on the verge of defeat: a sentiment encouraged by the enduring belief on the Islamist wing of the insurgency that with God on their side victory is certain. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government, and the parties and militias on which it depends, are determined to crush both the Baath networks and those of the intransigent Sunni Islamists. For the US, at least for its president and for some of its commanders, it is a case of ‘one last push’ that will create the victory that would cover US withdrawal. It is this thinking that is behind the ‘surge’ strategy, which will involve sending another 20,000 US troops to Iraq. This is risky from every point of view.

In the short term it risks precipitating the all-out civil war that in some respects it is trying to avoid. But in the longer term, it is bringing into being a distinct and disturbing political structure. Elections have taken place, a parliament sits, ministries have been reconstituted and, although battered, judicial processes unfold. These are the formal, public structures of the parliamentary, constitutional republic that have been held up as the major achievement of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But they are not the places where power resides. Behind and within these institutions a different kind of order prevails, given substance by armed units and their networks of support, creating a political terrain in which a more violent language is used, justified in the name of security.

It is clear, however, that there is no effective national or state-wide plan for security in a broader sense. When the invasion began, local forces and groups were pressed into service piecemeal, financed, armed and encouraged to take responsibility for local order. This was understandable when thought of in terms of US plans for a ‘light footprint’, but set in motion the development of local militias.

Subsequent ‘security plans’, applied with varying degrees of rigour in different parts of Iraq, have, often and misleadingly, been proffered as providing the key to security for the country at large. This was the case with the assault on Fallujah in 2004, the attempt to subdue Mosul in 2004-5, the fruitless effort to secure the Euphrates valley in 2005-6 and the more recent security plan for Baghdad. Every time, initial military success was made possible by overwhelming US firepower, but it was short-lived, and, in many cases, the political effect has been counter-productive.

Even in Tel Afar, where a different approach was adopted, echoing the ‘hearts and minds’ tactics deployed by the British in Basra, the ‘ghost politics’ of the town has reverted more or less to what it was before, just as in Basra the British have discovered the severe limitations of any strategy that goes beyond mere self-defence. The reality in security terms has been a series of local, pragmatic agreements to turn a blind eye to certain activities, to respect ‘red lines’ in order to keep violence between foreign and local forces to a minimum, to abide by self-imposed curfews and to designate certain no-go areas. When this policy was flouted recently by aggressive US security measures aimed at curbing the Jaish al-Mahdi militia in Sadr City, the Iraqi prime minister himself intervened. In December, the British too abandoned this pragmatism when they used massive armed force to disband a particular police unit in Basra. It seems likely that they were being used as the muscle in some elaborate Iraqi political game.

The mantra of the US and British governments may have been the need to build up Iraq’s national security forces, but they are in fact overseeing the creation of fragmented armed units, infiltrated by partisans of all factions and suitable for deployment only in very specific locations. They may all wear the same uniform, but they do not all serve the same master. We are witnessing the entrenchment of a state that is hostage to and divided up among an array of local powers. It may hold together, but largely because of what it can offer those who collude in it.

Violence has become the most effective form of political communication. Consistently ferocious, gaining strength and confidence in some areas, the insurgents want to remind fellow Iraqis that their reach is long and that their methods are brutal. But the Iraqi population isn’t their only audience: the same message is going out to the Iraqi government and, behind it, the US. In both cases, it has produced results. But while the focus may be on the insurgents and the violence they can command, the same language is being used within the state structures themselves, where a ‘security problem’ of precisely the same kind has been evident during the past couple of years.

Crimes committed by the security forces – racketeering, kidnapping, smuggling and straightforward theft of state assets – demonstrate local defiance of any attempt to re-establish central authority. The death squads, whose gruesome methods receive fresh publicity with the daily discovery of tortured victims, are both telling their own community of their determination to protect and avenge them and signalling to others the need to comply, or get out.

The mobilising of militias at times of crisis or to enforce no-go areas establishes the territorial control that confers recognition in national politics. The ruthless methods used to ensure conformity within those territories sends an unequivocal signal that dissent will not be tolerated and that communal solidarity will be imposed. These manifestations of violence and insecurity have a deep impact on people’s lives throughout the country, but are less likely to be included in any definition of the ‘security problem’ because they are in some respects integral to the way the new state power is being organised.

It is also true that security in Iraq is rarely the preoccupation of the Iraqis alone. Iranian interests, of varying kinds, have been behind some of the violence. For Turkey, the military option has always been close to hand in its dealings with Iraqi Kurdistan, even if relations with the Kurdish authorities are now more relaxed than they have been for many years. The Syrian government wants to demonstrate that it has control of its own borders, but must balance this against strong support in Syria for the Iraqi resistance. Notoriously, Iraq has also become the battleground for many Islamists from the Arab world, who see it as the equivalent of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a place where a superpower can be humbled, heresy combated and virtuous Islamic rule established.

And then there are the US and British governments, whose concerns and timetables – and the unease filtering through from the public and the armed forces in both countries – shape their views of the ‘security problem’ in Iraq. Lacking a public language to describe adequately what has been happening on the ground, they have fallen back on the claim that the formal institutions of parliament, elections and reconstructed ministries somehow equate to political transformation and that the only problem is that of ‘security’, defined in the violent terms I have outlined. They seem to think their ‘job’ will be ‘done’ when the Iraqi security forces are in a position to eliminate or, more realistically, to force into negotiation those using violence against them. How best to finesse this in order to present it as the most desirable option was one of the tasks of the Iraq Study Group.

Effectively, this means that the US and the UK are mainly concerned with the security of the powerful, of those who have, by various means, some of them very brutal indeed, established themselves as power-brokers. These are the people who can bring a kind of stability to the country, just as their alienation can bring chaos, violence and insecurity for all. Networks in the Iraqi security forces, partisan militias, Islamists who command territory, remnants of the Baathist shadow state, criminals who are seen as part of the entrepreneurial economy of the ‘new Iraq’: these are ‘the people who bind and loose’, in the Arabic phrase for decision-makers. They are acquiring that capacity largely thanks to their ability to deploy a selective and terrible violence. This is what makes others take them seriously, whether as opponents or potential partners, often at the expense of everyone and everything else. It is into their hands – and to some extent those of the regional interests behind them – that Iraq will be delivered when the US and its allies withdraw.

The country has been here before. Many Iraqis believed that the revolution of 1958 promised a future free of oppression, need and the casual violence visited on the weak by the strong. It was not to be. Some saw this clearly from the start. In the show trials of 1958-59 a former prime minister, Fadhil al-Jamali, on trial for his life, pointed out that the court was merely part of a new security system, set up and staffed by the military and their appointees. ‘The sword is a more trustworthy way of communicating than books,’ he said, quoting the ninth-century poet Abu Tammam, ‘in its cutting edge lies the boundary between seriousness and frivolity.’ He was not simply challenging the claim that the court was a ‘platform of democracy’: he was also underlining the fact that violence was the new language of political debate in Iraq. The grammar of violence has shown itself to be remarkably resilient.

[*] 7 July 2005, 26 January and 2 November 2006.

[†] Ahmed Hashim’s Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq (Hurst, 176 pp., £20, March 2006, 978 1 85065 795 8) provides a clear and authoritative account of the shifting world of these resistance organisations.