21 August 2017
Regional or community forces, militias, and other forms of local security actors have long existed in Iraq. However, when the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over large swaths of territory in 2014, Iraqi government control splintered and the number of local, hybrid, or sub-state security forces (LHSFs, as we refer to them) proliferated. Critical among these were the long-standing, 200,000-strong Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) forces, and the roughly 160,000 member (and growing) Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF (also known as al-hashd ash-sha’abi, or simply hashd) is an umbrella group of different militia or sub-state forces that was granted formal status by Parliament in November, 2016. A plethora of smaller forces drawn from local communities taken by ISIL also emerged, including Sunni tribal forces, and Turkmen, Yezidi, Christian and other minority defense forces. In the first half of 2017, GPPi, together with IRIS at the American University in Sulaimaini, conducted research examining the role LHSFs were playing in local communities and the impact for local and national dynamics.1 This webpage acts as the main landing page for sharing the data and analysis from that field research, and will be updated as new material becomes available.
It would be impossible to capture the full LHSF dynamics in Iraq – there is too much diversity, and the dynamics are constantly evolving. Instead, this research provides a snapshot of LHSF activities and impact from roughly February through July 2017, to illustrate the range of LHSF dynamics and relationships in three governorates: Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk. Click on each of the 11 governorate, district or subdistrict names2 listed below for preliminary findings about the role and impact of LHSFs in the locations where field research or secondary research was conducted:
In addition to these geographical research summaries, a number of short, analytical pieces on thematic or cross-cutting issues will be shared on a rolling basis, including pieces on:
Greater background to this project, a survey of existing literature on the key themes and questions, and other background information on LHSFs in Iraq is also available:
LHSFs in Action: Competing Local Authorities and Fluid Lines of Control
A critical question is how much these LHSF actors exert control in a given area. Broadly, there are two spheres of control: areas under control of Iraqi Security Forces of the Baghdad-based Federal Government, and areas controlled by Kurdish forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Control in northern Iraq has been divided between the KRG and Baghdad since before the ISIL crisis, and there has been a long-standing disagreement over the status of some areas in Northern Iraq, known as the Disputed Territories. In its 2014 advance, ISIL captured much of the Disputed Territories. Taking these areas back from ISIL has offered opportunities for both sides to change the line of control, often facilitated by affiliated LHSF forces “holding” these areas. The research conducted in Kirkuk, Qaraqosh, Tuz, and Zummar illustrate how different LHSF control patterns play into this Baghdad-KRG competition.
There are competing sublayers of control even within Baghdad- and KRG-controlled areas. Within Kurdish-controlled areas, control was split between forces reporting to the two main Kurdish political parties, the KDP and the PUK (best illustrated in the Kirkuk and Tuz research summaries). Within Baghdad-controlled areas, de facto control might be held not by ISF but by different PMF forces, which are formally part of the Iraqi Security Forces and report to the Iraqi Prime Minister, but in many cases give priority to the orders of their own leadership or their Iranian backers. The research summaries on Tuz, Tal Afar, Mosul, Baiji, Shirqat, and the Tikrit area illustrate some of the tensions in the PMF-Baghdad relationship.
Finally, in most areas there are also a number of smaller, locally-recruited forces, from Sunni tribal forces (sometimes referred to as tribal hashd or hashd al-asha’ir), to local Turkmen, Shabak, Yazidi or Christian forces. They typically range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand members, and tend to affiliate with or be integrated into one of the larger forces – ISF, Kurdish forces, or one of the large Shi’a PMF groups. Although in some areas they are the primary security actors (e.g., Turkmen PMF in southern Tuz or parts of Kirkuk), in most cases they act as auxiliary forces to these larger security actors, helping to “hold” areas by manning checkpoints, conducting security patrols, or simply putting a local face on what are otherwise viewed as outside forces by local communities. (Although not included in this research, some Yazidi forces in Ninewa’s Sinjar district operate outside the remit of the PMF and the KRG forces).
The situation is highly dynamic and the roles played by local, hybrid and sub-state security forces are continuously evolving. Although ISIL will likely be uprooted from areas it currently holds, including Tal Afar, Shirqat, and Hawija (in Kirkuk), ISIL has also proven capable of retaking areas that were liberated (e.g., in Qayyara). The lines of control between KRG and ISF might also shift if Baghdad challenges Kurdish expansion in the Disputed Territories since June 2014. The cards below show which actors were in control in each of the 11 case study areas as of early August 2017, and also include information on the conditions in each area, including the level of instability, the proportion of the displaced population that has failed to return, and the overall level of damage or destruction.
1 Research was conducted by joint teams of international and national researchers in most areas. However, in some more sensitive areas where access was constrained, only local researchers from that area conducted interviews. It was not possible to visit areas under ISIL control during the period of research (e.g., Tal Afar, Hawija in Kirkuk), but secondary research was conducted for a limited number of these areas where it helped to understand LHSF patterns in nearby areas or potential future flashpoints. Interviews focused on key informants, and although some civilians from each area were interviewed, large survey sampling was not part of the methodology. Data and findings from the field were cross-checked against other secondary research and analysis, and with researchers, observers, or local residents from these areas with some expertise in the LHSF dynamics in that area.
2 Field research was conducted in 15 distinct districts or subdistricts, however, some of the material from nearby districts or sub-districts was combined into joint research summaries above, notably in the Kirkuk governorate summary, the Tuz district summary, and the Tikrit area summary. The decision to focus on either a district or sub-district level, or to summarize trends across multiple districts or sub-districts in the below research summaries was determined by the nature of LHSF trends in that area.