Fighting for Iraq’s National Guard
A proposed force to fight ISIL could pave the way for the country’s disintegration, Iraqi lawmakers warn.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously attributed remarks on the composition of the proposed Iraqi National Guard to retired General John R Allen, the US coordinator for the anti-ISIL coalition of Western and Arab countries. US officials told Al Jazeera that: “The formation of the National Guard is entirely an Iraqi process to be settled in the parliament.”
Baghdad – Disagreements among political factions are likely to delay – or cancel – plans to form a National Guard, Iraqi lawmakers said. The proposed fighting force was originally suggested by the United States to combat fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern and western Iraq, but there have reportedly been disputes over the force’s makeup and its commanders.
US officials have repeatedly proposed setting up, training and equipping a new, small Sunni military entity, under the banner of the National Guard. According to the proposal, the force would be an alternative to the regular Shia-dominated army and would be commanded by the governors of provinces.
Most of the Sunni-dominated provinces in the west and north of the country, including Mosul – the second largest Iraqi city – and vast parts of Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Anbar provinces, have been seized by ISIL since June.
The dramatic collapse of Iraqi troops in these provinces, and their failure to take on ISIL, has highlighted the rooted corruption in the security establishment, as well as the complete absence of coordination between government troops and the Sunni residents in these areas.
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The proposed forces intrinsically emulate the Sahwa (Awakening Councils) troops, also known as the Sons of Iraq, formed by US forces in 2006 to fight al-Qaeda. Mostly comprised of former Sunni insurgents, they played a key role in defeating al-Qaeda throughout 2006-2009 in Sunni-dominated areas.
The latest proposal was part of a political deal approved by the Iraqi parliament last September. Sunni lawmakers say some MPs, acting on sectarian motivations, have attempted to derail approval of the National Guard to ensure their continued domination over the security forces.
According to analysts, the postponement of the National Guard’s formation could end the thaw between Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi and Iraq’s Sunnis. It could also undermine national reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shia Muslims and Kurds.
“The National Alliance [the Shia bloc in parliament] have [bad] intentions despite the fact that it [National Guard] will be a part of the National Defence System,” Hamid al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni lawmaker and the deputy of parliament’s security and defence committee, told Al Jazeera.
“There is procrastination and delay when it comes to [discussing] the National Guard law … and this will negatively impact the war against Daesh [ISIL] and the political process,” Mutlaq said.
Last week, Abbadi, bowing to pressure by Sunni politicians, asked to form a committee to write the draft law.
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According to Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations, the National Guard proposal has provoked both Shia Muslims and Kurds, who fear the formation of such a force would be the beginning of a bigger Sunni insurgent force that could threaten the autonomous Kurdish region, the Shia provinces and even the capital.
“A draft law which was sent to parliament by the cabinet was totally inconsistent with the constitutional articles, so we are waiting for the new draft and we will have to achieve a political consensus over it,” Shakhwan Abdullah, a Kurdish lawmaker and a member of the security and defence parliamentary committee, told Al Jazeera.
A draft law which was sent to parliament by the cabinet was totally inconsistent with the constitutional articles, so we are waiting for the new draft and we will have to achieve a political consensus over it.
“The draft we received was written by the National Security Consult [the highest governmental body that provides consulting and specialised studies in the field of national security] and it included several items that are deemed in breach with the constitution, such as giving priority to Baathist officers or former Iraqi army officers in the leading posts of the new force, regardless of the fact that they might have lawsuits filed against them,” Abdullah said.
The US-backed proposal states the new force has to be commanded and totally controlled by the governors of the targeted provinces and that the central government should only provide funding and equipment.
“Not just Shia Muslims have problems with this; even us, we have serious objections to this proposal. How would we accept to leave such forces under the control of the governors?” said Yazin al-Joubori, a senior anti-ISIL leader who heads the Sunni tribal fighters battling alongside Iraqi troops in Salahuddin.
“Our governors are not fit for such responsibility. What if one of them just decided to rig the election or declare a war against another province when they disagree over something?” Joubori told Al Jazeera.
There is growing concern among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish politicians that the National Guard may pave the way for a Sunni region after driving ISIL fighters out. “Forming this force was a result of a political agreement reached by all parliamentary blocs, but the details of the law will be decided when the voting process begins,” Jabar Abdulkhaliq, a member of the parliamentary finance committee, told Al Jazeera.
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But fears among Shia lawmakers and their Sunni and Kurdish allies were growing that the forming of such a force would open the door for other provinces to seek their own armies.
“If we approve the law in its initial form, we will face disasters as every province will have a right to form its troops [and] mobilise it without coordinating with the federal troops or the federal government,” a senior Shia lawmaker familiar with the negotiations told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“This would mean the governor of Basra, for example, could rebel against the central government and prevent the export of oil for any reason.”
This has prompted several lawmakers to propose the merging of Sunni volunteers with anti-ISIL Sunni tribesmen as well as al-hashd al-Shaabi (the popular mobilisation force of Shia volunteers fighting alongside Iraqi troops), under the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, including assurances for each party under the law.
The proposed modification, according to several senior lawmakers involved in the negotiations, is to form unified federal troops on the condition that the Sunni component is granted no less than 25 to 30 percent of the total number of the force, which would be commanded by a joint Shia-Sunni leadership.
“The new agreement is better as it proposes forming a federal force under the supervision of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and to be deployed in the restive provinces, or wherever it will be needed,” the senior Shia lawmaker said.