ISIL scored a string of victories within the span of a few days, from Ramadi in Iraq to Palmyra, in Syria, demonstrating it can wage simultaneous offensives on two distant fronts. The fall of Ramadi in Anbar province this week will further increase the Iraqi state’s dependency on the al-Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the formal term for the body that includes most of Iraq’s Shia militias. These events are part of the growing strength in Iraq and the greater Middle East of paramilitary forces supplementing, even supplanting the regular military during intra-state conflicts.
The new frontline between Iraq and ISIL is Habbaniya military base outside of Ramadi. This base now finds itself in the crosshairs of advancing forces for the second time in its history. During World War II, Habbaniya was a Royal Air Force base, besieged by Iraqi army units loyal to a pro-German government in Baghdad. From there, British military forces launched a counterattack in 1941 resulting in the eventual fall of Baghdad. Now 3,000 members of the Shia militias have deployed there to deter further ISIL advances, and plan for the second counterattack in the base’s history.
Unlike the fall of Mosul in 2014, the fall of Ramadi was not a surprise attack, but rather a drawn-out ISIL campaign, lasting 16 months. So why did the city fall if the Iraqi state had warning of an impending attack? After all, the advantage is supposed to go to the defender ensconced in an urban centre.
Failure to invest in defence
The Iraqi government simply failed to invest in the defence of the city, either with larger numbers of the conventional military forces or the more battle-hardened militias. The Shia-dominated state did not view Ramadi like the city of Samarra, which possessed the sacred Shia Al-Askari shrine, the destruction of which in 2006 set off Iraq’s civil war, nor does Ramadi have a Shia population.
Retaking Tikrit on the other hand was both symbolic and tactical, as it avenged ISIL’s massacre of mostly Shia army forces in nearby Camp Speicher, and it put the Iraqi forces closer geographically to retaking Mosul. Finally during the attacks on Ramadi, the Iraqi state was more concerned with repulsing ISIL’s advance on the town of Beiji, which is adjacent to a valuable oil refining facility.
Evidently, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi had deployed the Shia militias successfully in the fight for Tikrit, he was hesitant in mobilising them in the defence of Ramadi out of deference to a predominantly Arab Sunni city, which would have objected to the presence of these Shia forces on its streets. Ali al-Hatim, a sheikh in the large Arab Sunni Dulaymi tribe, described the possible deployment of the Shia militias there as akin to an “Iranian occupation”.
If he had deployed the Shia militias beforehand, it would have served as fodder for Abbadi’s critics of his sectarian bias.
However, now that the city has fallen to ISIL, one Arab sheikh said of the Shia militias, “at this stage, we welcome any force that will come and liberate us from the chokehold” of ISIL. Such comments now provide Abbadi with the political cover he needs to deploy the Shia militias.
If he had deployed the Shia militias beforehand, it would have served as fodder for Abbadi’s critics of his sectarian bias. If Arab Sunni tribal leaders are themselves requesting the militias’ support, Abbadi can deflect both US and local criticism of overreliance on these forces.
Sunni tribal fighters
Second, the fall of Ramadi also allows Abbadi to incorporate Arab Sunni tribal fighters into the Shia militias, rather than giving them their own autonomous force. Some Arab Sunnis have already joined the Popular Mobilisation Forces in the fight for Ramadi, fighting alongside Shia militias, as some had done in Tikrit.
This cooperation provides deflection from critics that the militias are sectarian, and removes the onus on Abbadi to reconstitute the Reawakening (Sahwa) Forces. This autonomous Arab Sunni tribal force was financed by the US to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to ISIL), forcing the bulk of these terrorists to leave Iraq by 2008.
If Abbadi were to reconstitute the Reawakening Forces, it would have given Iraq three separate paramilitary forces; the Kurdish Peshmerga (the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government), the Shia militias, which are themselves divided into numerous factions, and a third autonomous Arab Sunni force.
While Abbadi has made efforts to arm the Arab Sunni tribes in Anbar, the central government can now have more control of the Arab Sunni tribal fighters combating ISIL, who will have to embed with the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces to gain access to the militias’ arsenal to combat a heavily armed ISIL. Given that the Popular Mobilisation Forces are controlled by the office of the prime minister, the state can claim that the militias are a national, rather than a sectarian institution.
The dynamics playing out in the fight for Ramadi are indicative of a transformation of the role between the military and the state in the Middle East. On one spectrum is Libya, whose military has all but collapsed into rival militias; to Egypt, where a large military is not just embedded in the economy, but has morphed into the state.
Iraq has fallen into the in-between category of states that have developed hybrid military and paramilitary forces during an intra-state conflict. Examples would include Lebanon, where Hezbollah exists alongside the Lebanese military; Syria, where the conventional military and the paramilitary Shabiha (now the National Defence Forces) maintain the Assad regime; and Yemen, where Houthi militias and the regular army forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh have gained control over most of northern Yemen. In all four of these cases, Iran had a role in either creating, training, or providing arms to these forces, enhancing its regional influence by developing institutions in all four of these weak states.
The fighting capability of these forces, however, differ from the traditional conscript armies of the Middle East. The conventional Iraqi Security Forces have demonstrated that they cannot combat ISIL without tandem operations with the Shia militias.
However, estimates indicate that there are a total of 60,000 to 120,000 fighters in these militias, and Arab Sunni volunteers are unlikely going to swell their numbers significantly. Militias are not standing armies. This estimated number does not mean they will all will be mobilised at the same time for a battle.
These low numbers mean the militia forces cannot be garrisoned at a base for long periods to control the surrounding area. They are in reality shock troops, used for assaults on cities, and then move onto the next battle.
Therefore their strength does not come from their numbers. Their strength comes from their political value, in that the Shia militias have demonstrated that the Iraqi state cannot hold against ISIL without them.
Before the rise of ISIL, some, not all, of the Shia militias enjoyed a parallel political presence in the institutions of the Iraqi state. Militias are generally loyal to either a leader or narrow agenda, which means that if ISIL is defeated in Iraq, the state will not just be indebted to the leaders of the militias, but also the militias, not the national military, will have become the very backbone of the Iraqi state.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.