Iraq’s Ethno-Sectarian Landscape: Sunni Arab Collaboration with the Dominant Shi’a Militia Apparatus
Christopher H. Brodsky
Since the start of the war against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, Iraq’s Sunni Arab powerbrokers have aligned with the dominant Shi’a parties and their associated militias in partnerships based on local security and economic ties. The Sunni Arab elite have enjoyed political, economic, and military privileges from serving as the junior partners to the Shi’a militias – including the Badr Organization (Badr) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) – in security cooperation, smuggling networks, and electoral blocs. These privileges extend to provincial Sunni officials, administrators, and tribal fighters willing to collaborate with the Shi’a groups and their proxies. Despite underlying tensions, these relationships offer Sunni Arabs access to patronage networks and a stake in Iraq’s post-2003 political order. Iraq’s ethnosectarian landscape will be defined – for the foreseeable future – by low-intensity conflict and violent competition that will nonetheless remain contained within a unitary Iraqi state.
The Islamic State’s occupation over nearly one-third of Iraqi territory in 2014 forced Sunni Arab communities to join forces with Iraq’s dominant Shi’a militias. Affiliating with the larger and better equipped Shi’a groups – the most powerful of which are supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – provided local Sunni tribal forces access to salaries, weapons, training, and political support. In Salahuddin, Yazzan al-Jabouri, a Sunni tribal leader from Shirqat, established a direct relationship with the former deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Al-Jabouri led the PMF’s 51st Brigade, Liwa Salahuddin, and fought alongside the IRGC-supported Jund al-Imam Brigades against IS. Khalid al-Gibara, a Sunni tribal leader from al-Alam, formed a local militia to defend the city from IS with assistance from the IRGC-aligned AAH militia, which, despite its history of exploiting Sunni Arabs, provided weapons and funding to al-Gibara’s forces. Other Sunni Arabs that cooperated with Shi’a militias range from prominent Sunni powerbrokers such as former Nineveh governor Atheel al-Nujafi, to local tribal initiatives including the Shammari Brigade based in Dour, and PMF Brigade 88, a small Sunni tribal force led by Sheikh Wennas al-Jabouri.
Sunni Arab political leaders capitalized on the chaos of the war against IS in Nineveh by aligning with the dominant Shi’a parties, which often had more robust local networks than their Sunni Arab counterparts. Jamal Karbouli and Khamis al-Khanjar – leaders of the al-Hal and Mashroo’ al-Arabi parties respectively – entered the political fray after aligning with the predominantly Shi’a Bin’a electoral bloc currently led by Badr commander, Hadi al-Ameri. Ahmed al-Jabouri (Abu Mazen), the former governor of Salahuddin and a prominent Sunni leader, worked with Khanjar and Iran-backed Shi’a political parties in May 2019 to support Mansour al-Mareid – a Sunni with close ties to Iran – to become governor of Nineveh. Al-Mareid used his short term in office to give coveted reconstruction contracts and government aid to political and militia allies. Even the former National Security Adviser and current Chairman of the PMF, Falih al-Fayyad, aligned his predominantly Shi’a Ataa party with Maried and other local Sunni leaders.
Sunni Arab collaboration includes local officials, administrators, and fighters who serve important roles institutionalizing Badr and AAH’s dominance over strategically significant cities in Iraq’s disputed territories. In Nineveh, Salahuddin, and northern Diyala, local Sunnis – both Arab and Kurdish – affiliated with Badr and AAH fulfill key operational roles including service provision, check-point operation, and intelligence gathering that non-local Shi’a militants could not as effectively perform. Badr maintains strict security control over Sadiya – a Sunni majority city in north-central Diyala – in part by providing weapons, employment opportunities, and land to Sunni collaborators. Researchers at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani found that, in some cases, low level public-sector jobs are sold as a form of patronage to those able to pay $6,000 – $8,000. Badr successfully turned its strategy into political leverage and won the most votes in Sadiya in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. AAH too, has co-opted local Sunni Arab affiliates such as members of the Karawi tribe in northern Diyala. These partnerships are mutually beneficial as local officials gain access to reconstruction contracts and other economic privileges, while Shi’a militias use local allies to dominate provincial smuggling, trafficking, and taxation schemes.
These partnerships endure even though the dominant Shi’a militias harass Sunni Arab communities, prevent internally displaced persons (IDPs) from returning home, and secretly imprison hundreds of “disappeared” Sunni men. Iraq is home to one of the largest IDP populations, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to one million displaced persons. Shi’a militias such as Badr, AAH and their allies are preventing Sunni Arabs from returning to Amerli, Daquoq, Al-Dibis, Tuz Khurmatu and other demographically mixed cities. Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) operates networks of secret prisons with impunity, including at the group’s base at Jurf al-Sukr, where hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners are reportedly held in secret detention. Despite the efforts of Sunni provincial council members and civil rights activists, these issues have failed to mobilize either national Sunni Arab parties or large segments of the Sunni Arab population.
Sunni Arab relations with various security forces that operate in demographically mixed areas – including federal police and intelligence services, Kurdish Peshmerga, and various Shi’a militias – have also generally improved since 2014. Although these relations are often tense, Sunni tribal fighters are part of the official PMF framework and operate alongside rival forces in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Hawija toward common goals such as defeating the Islamic State. Several prominent Sunni tribes in Kirkuk including the Jabour, Obeid, and Hamdan are active in the 56th PMF Brigade, while rival Shi’a Turkmen in the 16th and 52nd Brigades – supported by Badr, AAH, KH, and Kata’ib Jund al-Imam – are stationed nearby. Since 2018, the number of federal police brigades in Kirkuk province has increased from four to twelve to supplement three Iraqi army brigades and international coalition forces that were stationed at the K1 airbase until their redeployment in March 2020. Kirkuk lacks a central node to coordinate among these security forces which poses the risk of inadvertent escalation, and recent talks between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to establish new coordination centers in the disputed territories has unnerved Peshmerga and ISF rivals. But several factors will likely keep this balance of forces from escalating and jeopardizing their respective footholds in the area. First, all the security actors have an interest in defeating the Islamic State, which is still carrying out attacks in Hawija, Makhmour, Diyala, and elsewhere from its base in the Hamrin mountains. Second, security actors want to maintain relative stability in areas where they can tap into illicit revenue streams such as trafficking and smuggling. And finally, Sunni tribes in Hawija and elsewhere successfully set up local committees and pacts to de-escalate disputes with non-local forces including PMF and ISF units that took over security in areas liberated from IS. Baghdad and Erbil’s recent agreement to establish federal security control in the disputed district of Sinjar could also become – if successful – a model for future stabilization initiatives in the region.
Although not ideal, the relationships that tie Sunni tribal militias, political powerbrokers, and local officials and administrators to the dominant Shi’a parties represent a far better arrangement for Sunni Arabs than any alternative. Despite the Islamic State’s low-intensity insurgency, the group is far from the apex of its power in 2014 and has little to offer Sunni Arabs. Iraqi security operations targeting IS sleeper cells, weapons caches, and tunnel networks are ongoing with coalition intelligence and air support, and have had a demonstrable effect on the terrorist group’s ability to regroup and recruit new members. The lack of widespread Sunni participation in recent national protests suggests that Sunni communities lack the will to undermine the post-2003 political order, and that the Sunni political and religious establishment – which so eagerly endorsed protesters in 2013 – has interests at stake in the status quo. The current General Secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) Rashid al-Azzawi refused to publicly endorse the protests which would have jeopardized his long relationship with Tehran and its Iraqi allies such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. Sunni religious and political figures also feared that the government would opportunistically oppress Sunni protesters as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did in 2013. Many Sunni Iraqi youth reportedly long for the stability of the Saddam regime despite never having lived through it, but there is no institution strong enough to dominate Iraq militarily nor are Sunni Arab communities anywhere near aligned in their opposition to the current system which, despite its faults, offers access to lucrative economic and political patronage networks.
Cross-ethnosectarian collaboration has become the new normal for Sunni Arabs looking to enter Iraq’s political marketplace. Illicit economies that depend on patronage from party and militia bosses by definition creates winners and losers – with Sunni Arabs more often than not among the latter. Nonetheless, Sunni Arab cooperation with – and even direct co-optation by – Badr, AAH, and their affiliates is now so widespread that no real alternatives exist outside PMF-dominant political networks. A recent report from the London School of Economics argues the recent fall in oil prices will likely lead to growth in illicit economic sectors, which may lower barriers to entry for Sunni Arabs. As Baghdad’s revenues dry up and the state struggles to pay public sector salaries, local militias and powerbrokers will broaden the scope of their non-oil revenue streams by expanding their involvement in extortion, illegitimate checkpoints, narcotics trafficking, and illegal taxation of businesses.
Cross sectarian economic, political, and security relationships in Iraq’s provinces are likely to remain constant, if not expand, in the foreseeable future. But because political currents in Iraq are constantly in motion, political assessments can quickly unravel based on any number of local, regional, or international geopolitical developments. For example, Iraq’s economic crisis poses unique challenges to Sunni Arabs in the Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF). The TMF were intentionally organized as the smallest and weakest entities within the PMF – to prevent them from threatening their Shi’a counterparts – and are thus likely to be affected first by government austerity measures such as cuts to public sector salaries. This will be a particularly challenging issue for Iraq since government revenues overwhelming come from the sale of oil and public sector salaries account for a substantial portion of the state budget. If Sunni Arab communities face the brunt of Iraq’s economic crisis, Sunni powerbrokers may reconsider the benefits of holding a second-class stake in a Shi’a-dominant system. The campaign against the Islamic State may also stall if President Trump or a future President Biden decides to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from Iraq. Without U.S. intelligence and air support, operations against IS could stall and provide an opportunity for the terrorist group to recruit Sunni Arabs once more.