“We don’t call them militias. Militias are…illegal”

New factor in Iraq: irregular brigades fill security void

A reader tips me off to this Wall Street Journal article by Greg Jaffe. I googled and found it reproduced on USAF AIM Points.

It concerns irregular paramilitary units that are “popping up” around Iraq:

The unplanned units — commanded by friends and relatives of cabinet officers and tribal sheiks — go by names like the Defenders of Baghdad, the Special Police Commandos, the Defenders of Khadamiya and the Amarah Brigade. The new units generally have the backing of the Iraqi government and receive government funding.

While regular units of the Iraq Army have taken up residence on rehabilitated army bases, the others camp out in places like looted Ministry of Defense buildings, a former women’s college, an old Iraqi war monument and an abandoned aircraft hangar. Frequently, U.S. officials don’t find out about them until they stumble across them. Some Americans consider them a welcome addition to the fight against the insurgency — though others worry about the risks.

“We don’t call them militias. Militias are…illegal,” says Maj. Chris Wales, who spent most of January tracking down and finding these new forces. “I’ve begun calling them ‘Irregular Iraqi ministry-directed brigades.’ ” The “pop up” label comes from other U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Troops who might have otherwise joined the regular Iraqi Army are drawn to these units because they are often led by a particularly inspirational commander or made up of people with similar tribal and religious backgrounds. This makes the units more cohesive and potentially effective against the insurgency. “Just show us where to go and we will eat the insurgents alive,” an Iraqi in one of these units told Maj. Wales earlier this month when he tracked them down at a long-shuttered Baghdad airport.

I’ve written about this type of thing several times previously, the Badr Brigade in particular.

One thing we need to be very careful of while helping set up (or “install”) a new democracy in Iraq is that the people are very tribal and they won’t simply cast off thousands of years of culture to embrace American-style government and military structures. This isn’t to say that they will utterly reject our way of doing things, either. The final result is bound to be somewhere in between the old and the new, and if we want it to succeed we need to be as careful as we can not to step on certain toes.

It’s not news to anyone that Iraq suffers from security problems. And it’s not news to anyone that everyone who wants a weapon has a weapon in Iraq. So why not try to harness some of those loose cannons?

Obviously, it’s dangerous ground:

Some U.S. officials worry about the new units’ allegiances, which often seem split between their religious and tribal sponsors and the central government, creating the risk that the units could be used as militias if Iraq falls into civil war. U.S. military commanders in Baghdad are especially concerned about the Defenders of Khadamiya, which is forming to guard a major Shiite shrine on the city’s northern edge at the behest of Shiite cleric Hussein al Sadr. U.S. military officials worry that the group, which now numbers about 120 men but plans to grow to more than 800, could be used to settle internal Shiite scores or deployed in a Sunni-Shiite conflict.

This would be troubling, to say the least. And the “civil war” talk will only gain momentum if Darth Sadr (for example) rebuilds his army with the blessing of the Shiite-dominated government.

But I think that those scores are going to need to be settled at some point. There’s a lot of bad blood that’s going to need to be worked out. The tribal structure demands it, and in many cases it will be better to get it resolved rather than to let is simmer and fester. And, in many ways, the “civil war” anti-war types are constantly wringing their hands over has been going on for over a year.

Getting back to the militias:

As these irregular units proliferate, U.S. officials face a thorny dilemma: whether to encourage these forces, whose training and experience varies wildly, or to try to rein them in. “There is a tension between on the one hand encouraging and fostering initiative and on the other executing the plan for the Iraqi Security Forces that everyone agreed on,” says Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who is overseeing the massive U.S. effort to help train and equip Iraqi military units. “To be candid, I would err on the side of fostering initiative. I want to get the hell out of here.”

If (and that’s a big ‘if’) some of these units can be counted on to provide support and security for the legitimate government, they will be a boon. Not only will they increase the size and capability of security forces, they will take armed and potentially-rogue fighters off the “street”.

I’d think it would be in the best interest of the Coalition and especially of the new Iraqi government to set up some sort of program to “deputize” various groups after they’ve been looked over and vetted. If some form of compromise can be worked out where they operate “for” their particular group but with the official “backing” of the Iraqi government, the mutual benefit of improved security could be significant.

Maybe armbands denoting “deputization” or something similar can be worked out, with the understanding that some money, weaponry, and supplies will be forthcoming for the agreement to play ball. Perhaps service in these irregular units can be parleyed into a job in the police or military at some point for interested individuals.

The flip-side of this all would be that unofficial, un-deputized militia units would have to be dealt with more harshly and quickly to prevent these groups from exploding (both figuratively and literally) all over the place. If there is something practical and honorable to be gained from joining the new order, those groups that would be helpful will do so.

The fact is that these sorts of groups are going to be around for a long time. We can try to wipe them all out, we can turn a blind eye to them, or we can try to enlist them. Many of them just want to provide security for their people. That’s what we want, as well, so it seems that a middle ground should be reachable in many cases.

And there’s far too much good stuff in the article for me to excerpt. You really should go read the whole thing.


  1. You’ve sure made some good points on the double edgeness (man….is that a word? LOL!) of these units. Some of what you said echoes the words of an advisor to the Iraqi Interior Minister, I had the opportunity to speak with in December, ’04. According to the advisor, everyone who is anyone want’s their own (the more, and heavily armed the better) security forces. It’s a safety and prestige thing. (I find the same thing is very common in the West Bank too). That mind set extends from individuals to larger groups (tribes, municipalities, etc) and is indeed very reflective of Arabic society. It may end up a democracy ‘BUT’ I can guarantee it will have a DISTINCT Arabic and Muslim flavor. Hope we’re able to constructively harness it.