April 7, 2006
WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- Despite a long-standing commitment to disarm and disband sectarian militias, the Iraqi government has quietly dropped plans to take action -- at least until a new Cabinet can be appointed and get working.
'Currently, during this period of government transition, Iraq`s political and military leaders have taken an informal decision to maintain the status quo with regard to armed groups. They are not seeking to confront them unless they are found to be acting criminally,' a senior U.S. official in Iraq told United Press International this week.
The official asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media on this subject but tracks it closely. His comments highlight growing concerns that sectarian violence -- much of it perpetrated by militias, some of which are believed linked to Iraq`s interior ministry -- may spark civil war. At the very least, their continued existance challenges the legitimacy of the central government and Iraqi security forces.
'There is an Iraqi program approved by the Transitional National Assembly more than a year ago to disarm, disband, and integrate the nine recognized militias,' the official said.
'However, the three interim governments have not had the political will to implement it. In fairness to them, it was and is unlikely that the militias would disband until they saw the outcome of the political process.'
That outcome remains in doubt. Despite the acceptance of the new constitution and a successful national election, the newly elected national assembly has still not selected a unity government to rule the country.
'This has created a perception that the militias have increased their influence. In my view, formed in 22 months in Baghdad, it hasn`t changed very much. It was a challenge three years ago, and it remains a challenge today,' the official said.
But U.S. pressure is increasing on the Iraqi government to move swiftly on militias, which are increasingly implicated in kidnappings and sectarian violence around the country.
'The government of Iraq, I believe, is going to establish a policy in order to look at how they deal with extra armed groups that are operating in Baghdad. And you can`t have militias operating on their own outside the rule of law. And I think you got a policy decision here that I believe the Iraqi government is going to work to establish,' said Maj. Gen. James Thurman, the commander of the Multinational Division in Baghdad, in a Pentagon briefing March 31.
The next day, an unidentified U.S. official told reporters in Baghdad on background that the government had to deal with militias quickly, as it was a threat to establishing central control in the nation.
The militia problem is not one that can be solved with a single approach -- nor even a single approach to a single group, the U.S. official said.
'One final point on armed groups. They are homogenous in ethnicity and sect but rarely in motivation. In JAM, for example, there is an element of unemployed, young men who consider themselves simply a `neighborhood watch.` There is another element who is motivated by financial gain and who conduct kidnapping, car jacking, and even murder for profit. And, there is a third element who conduct crimes motivated by Shia religious extremism and sectarian hatred. The key in all of this is to understand the nature of the threat and to deal with each component of it appropriately. That`s why we say that only Iraq can solve this particular problem with advice and support from us,' the official said.
Militias have been a critical issue in Iraq since the war that toppled Saddam Hussein left a security void. In June 2004, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi announced a deal to disband the nine recognized militias -- those that pre-dated the Iraq invasion and who opposed Saddam Hussein. The nine militias, including two units of Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shiite Badr brigade, count around 100,000 fighters collectively.
The militia leaders reportedly agreed to a timetable for disbanding their forces and joining the Iraqi army and police in separate units. About 60 percent were to remain in the military, and the rest were to retire or take other kinds of jobs.
At least one of the most notorious militias in Iraq, the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) or Mahdi Army loyal to Shiite Moqtada Sadr, was not included in the 2004 agreement and is considered illegal. Sadr`s army was responsible for two bloody uprisings against coalition forces in April and August of 2004. Sadr himself has been indicted for the murder of a Shiite cleric in Najaf in April 2003.
The militia 'problem' -- that is, kidnappings, killings and challenges to Iraqi military and police supremacy, or the apparent infiltration of police -- is largely confined to Baghdad and Basra, the U.S. official told UPI.
Militias both fill a security void in Iraq -- one of the reasons the Iraqi government isn`t eager to dismantle them -- and add to the problem, depending on their location and leadership.
'The Peshmerga and Badr have an exclusively political agenda and a well-defined chain of command that makes them predictable and disciplined. JAM mixes a political and religious agenda and has an ill-defined chain of command that makes them unpredictable and often undisciplined,' the U.S. official said.
An operation carried out last week in Baghdad by U.S. and Iraqi special forces targeting an armed group holding hostages revealed the group to be JAM.
In the meantime, members of the militias are eligible to join the Iraqi army or police provided they meet the entrance requirements -- age between 18 and 35, literate, healthy, and vetted by a background check.
'We know that we have former-Peshmerga, former-Badr Corps, and other members of former-armed groups in the legitimate forces. They`re doing fine,' the official told UPI. 'The challenge with (the Mahdi Army) is that they generally don`t meet the entrance requirements.'
Copyright 2006 by United Press International