Reviving the Iraqi Army

Throughout the history of Iraq, the regular army has more than once demonstrated its ability to serve as a national instrument, standing above ethnic, sectarian, and regional affiliations.

Nicole Stracke
Security and Terrorism Program

Among the 79 recommendations listed by the Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State James Baker and Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, those listed under 50 and 51 can be considered the most important. These state that "the entire Iraqi national police" and "the entire Iraqi Border Police should be transferred to the Ministry of Defense" and thus tries to promote the institutions of the Iraqi military significantly over that of the Iraqi police forces. Given that the current police forces are heavily infiltrated by militias and have lost much credibility and public support, promoting Iraqi Army institutions would appear to be the key to enhancing security in Iraq. The question, however, is to what degree can these recommendations actually be implemented?

The current Iraqi government has no interest in promoting the role of the army. Since the establishment of the government in May 2006, the army has only played a marginal role in securing the country. The Iraqi Constitution subjects the army to the political leadership. Accordingly, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; he is in charge of the military institution of the country, including the appointment of the defense minister. Rather than re- building and promoting the army, the Maliki government decided to cushion its political power by politicizing the police forces and allying with the diverse armed militias. The government's intention to limit the army's influence, restrain its capability and make it rely on the police was clearly demonstrated in the prime minister's proposal to the parliament in July 2006 wherein Maliki suggested recalling 80,000 troops from the disbanded Iraqi army, but with 60,000 of them going to the police forces and only 20,000 actually re-employed by the army.

This proposal came at a time when it was already well known that many parts of the police forces were corrupt, politicized and infiltrated by Shiite militias, and hence considered unreliable to stabilize the country. But the proposal reflected the government's style of governance whereby its power and protection are derived from various militias and a politicized police. The leadership and different political factions, including the prime minister's Islamic Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Al-Hakim group), and the Al-Sadr group, rely on armed militias which have been responsible for the destabilization of the country by competing with each other for control and power, thereby contributing to the collapse of security and pushing the country gradually to a sectarian and civil war.

The promoting of army institutions by the government will thus undermine the role and influence of the militias and pave the way for them to eventually disarm and disband. This is likely to be met with stiff resistance by the militias and could lead to military clashes. At this point, the government would commit political suicide if it confronts its own militias since a withdrawal of the militias' protection would leave an unpopular, isolated, weak government that is vulnerable and open to attacks from other radical Sunni and Kurdish groups, including Al-Qaeda.

At the same time, the possibility of the present government rebuilding the army institutions should be treated with caution. Due to the unpopularity of the Maliki government and its reliance on militias, the willingness of army officers to support the present government and accept its legitimacy is not an easy option. Despite the constitution specifying that the military is subject to the political leadership, it is unlikely that the Iraqi Army will respect the chain of command ending with a civilian prime minister, and it is improbable that the army officers will be loyal to a government that has brought the country close to civil war.

Given the constitutional supremacy of the Iraqi political leadership over the military institution, there are basically two options available for implementing the Iraq Study Group's recommendation on promoting the Iraqi Army institutions.

First, the US 'promotes' and 'imposes' the divorce of the Iraqi Army from the control of the state's political leadership, thereby de-politicizing the army institutions. The Iraqi Army will then be independent from the Iraq political leadership and only be linked through its defense minister, who must not be civilian but a professional, experienced army officer standing above any political and sectarian affiliation. He will be the final decision-maker in the chain of command not subjected to any political party, and as the de facto commander-in-chief he will be in charge of the Iraqi security and police forces. At this point, a number of high-ranking Iraqi Army officers have already been recalled to service, commanding about three to four divisions from the former disbanded Iraqi army. These officers and soldiers have neither been part of Saddam's clan nor known to be loyal to him; in fact, some of them were excluded from important army duties during Saddam's reign. Some even operated in exile in Britain and the US before coming back to Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. While these army officers represent diverse sectarian groups, they are dedicated to maintain the state's integrity and stability, and are not politicized or infiltrated by the militias.

These divisions from the "new Iraqi army" can be deployed in Baghdad first. To create a credible force, the US needs to change its policy and attitude toward the Iraqi Army by supplying it with modern and effective arms and equipment, besides providing air and logistical backing. Once deployed, with US assistance, the Iraqi Army would stand in the frontline to crack down on militias and terrorist groups ruling the country.

A second option is declaring a state of emergency. According to the Iraqi Constitution, declaring a state of emergency would require two-thirds parliamentary vote and a joint agreement of the president and prime minister. Once declared, the prime minister would suspend or dissolve parliament, dismiss the government and 'willingly' hand power to the military leaders to restore or establish "law and order."

At this point, it seems rather unlikely that Maliki or other political leaders would agree to such a decision. Similar to the re-establishment of the military institutions, this would amount to political suicide for a leadership that has established its power and influence under the umbrella of the US and its occupation forces. Once the army takes direct responsibility for the country's security, there would be no guarantee that the civilian government would be able to reestablish the political order. Given the Iraqi history that has witnessed six successful military coups, this scenario would abolish the civilian control and establish a military leadership. It is worth noting that since the establishment of the Iraqi Parliament, the 30-day state of emergency has been in effect continuously with the Parliament renewing the emergency every month. Since the current state of emergency is under the control of the civilian government, it has not been effective.

In both the options, the Iraqi Army could garner public support by taking direct responsibility for the security of the country and providing much-needed stabilization policies. The current government is unpopular; Iraqis have no trust in the police forces or the US troops. Attacks, suicide bombings, sectarian clashes and kidnappings determine the daily life of the average Iraqi and have demoralized the citizens. Therefore, it is likely that a majority of Iraqis would welcome and support a strong leadership which is able to reestablish law and order. There is no doubt that the Iraqi army image suffered under Saddam's leadership; however, the military institutions in Iraq are traditionally strong and respected. Throughout the history of Iraq, the regular army -- and certainly not the regime's protection forces such as the Republican Guard -- has more than once demonstrated its ability to serve as a national instrument, standing above ethnic, sectarian, and regional affiliations.

Published: 12 Dec 2006


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