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An Iraqi National Guard — fighting force or folly?

Oct 15,2014 - Last updated at Oct 15,2014

This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi is set to put before parliament a measure that will either serve as the lynchpin of the US-led coalition’s campaign to rid the country of the Islamic State (IS) or usher in the end to a unified Iraq.

Abadi is to put to vote the formation of an Iraqi National Guard — a series of decentralised regional militias to fill in the gap where the army failed to provide security across Iraq and act as the frontlines of the growing regional war against the IS.

The measure, modelled after Kurdistan’s peshmerga militias, has gained broad support and a diverse array of endorsements along its rapid transformation from think tank theory to nearly codified Iraqi law. 

An Iraqi National Guard has been touted by US Secretary of State John Kerry, championed by Abadi and accepted by Sunni Baathists and Shiite moderates as a key to rooting out the IS from Iraq, to hit the jihadist movement where air strikes cannot reach.

Even Jordan has welcomed the measure, with officials offering to provide training for the proposed forces should Baghdad give the green light.

The issue reportedly dominated coalition representative US Major John R. Allen’s talks with Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders in Amman and Baghdad this month, with the retired general allegedly pushing the force as “the key” in winning the war against the IS.

Despite the groundswell of support in Baghdad and Washington, unanswered questions over the shape and control of the forces have turned the proposed fighting force into a political minefield.

Under the draft law put forth by Abadi, national guard units would be established at provincial level, restricted to each province’s borders and composed only of residents of a given province.

Both the guard’s fighting forces and the command chain would be “proportionally representative to the various groups in each province” to achieve “true social representation” in each region, the law states.

Under the proposal, each national guard unit would be commanded by “provincial security councils” headed by province governors and comprising local MPs and government officials.

In setting its parameters, the law restricts each national guard unit to operating within the borders of its province and prohibits the guards from merging with existing sectarian and ethnic militias.

Despite its deceptively simple guidelines, the proposal raises complex challenges.

The first and perhaps largest controversy is the proposed makeup of each national guard unit.

While creating a new military force at provincial level would solve decades old grievances by providing trusted, official Sunni forces in provinces such as Anbar and Mosul, ethnically and sectarian mixed provinces such as Baghdad and Kirkuk would prove a logistical and political nightmare. 

Abadi’s proposal takes into account exceptions for mixed provinces, allocating a 32 per cent share each for Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk, with Christians serving the remaining 4 per cent.

Baghdad’s national guard, meanwhile, would comprise a 50-50 split between Shiites and Sunnis. Yet even the most precise statistical fine-tuning cannot account for political realities on the ground.

Would Sunni and Shiite forces agree to a joint fighting force?

Will Sunni communities welcome a half-Shiite national guard into their neighbourhood?

How will Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs act as a cohesive unit in Kirkuk when everything, from housing to oil contracts, fell along bitter ethnic lines? 

The national guard’s biggest obstacle may come from the Kurds who for over two decades have enjoyed autonomous forces in Kurdistan and fear the proposal comes as a bid by Baghdad to place peshmerga militias under central government control.

Kurdish officials rejected the proposal as a “non-starter”, casting doubt that one of the coalition’s largest partners and fighting force would take part in the national guard.

The second challenge to a fully functioning national guard are the myriad of sectarian, tribal and private militias that roam Iraq.

Though the law is clear in banning the national guard from merging with non-governmental militias after its formation, it is widely believed that various existing militias, such as Sunni tribal militias and Kurdish peshmerga, would serve as the foundation of the nascent military force.

Although it may legitimise now rogue, rag-tag militias, the move raises a host of uncomfortable questions. 

What will prevent local and regional militias from “hijacking” national guard units and carrying out tribal and sectarian agendas in the name of the Iraqi government?

How will the guard treat militias that refuse to submit and accept its umbrella?

Will the guard force recently conscripted Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites turn their guns on their fellow neighbours, friends and loved ones?

The criteria for the groups accepted and absorbed by the guard also remain a thorny issue. Former Baathists and the National Iraqi Army — the largest grouping of Saddam-era Iraqi military officials and soldiers — have thrown their support behind the initiative.

Will Baghdad truly allow Saddam-era generals to lead this new army in all but name?

The guidelines of the proposed guard have been even more vague regarding the status of former jihadists, Islamist fighters and the various Sunni groups now allied with the IS.

Baghdad and Washington remained mum on whether they would truly allow those who took up arms against the government or fought under the IS’ banner to abandon the jihadist group and join government forces.

Such amnesty and flexibility was key to the success of the so-called Sunni awakening councils in their uprising against Al Qaeda, and may be the difference between an effective anti-IS force and unwelcome guests.

Yet lost in the political wrangling is the greatest flaw in the proposed national guard.

The guard legalises what has been the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability for over a decade: sectarian militias.

If Abadi and his allies fail to tread softly in their rush to form an alternative to the IS, they may prove to be the downfall, not the saviours, of a unified Iraq.

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