Sunni Tribal Forces
Local, Sunni tribal forces have been key to recapturing and holding ISIL-held areas. However, different mobilization and control patterns in Ninewa and Salah ad-Din have created different forms of Sunni forces, and may determine how much these Sunni forces contribute to stability or tension in the future.
This report is part of a larger study on local, hybrid and sub-state security forces in Iraq (LHSFs). Please see the main page for more findings, and research summaries about other field research sites.
Sunni participation has been viewed as a critical ingredient in the fight against ISIL both because past Sunni marginalization and exclusion directly fed ISIL recruits, and because Sunni tribal mobilization has been crucial to containing Islamic extremist movements in the past, notably Al Qaeda in Iraq. The fractured nature of the Sunni Arab community1 and their deep mistrust for the Iraqi government, Shi’a militias, and Coalition forces did not make Sunni participation a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, Sunni Arab mobilization has been building since 2014. By 2017, approximately 30,000 to 45,000 Sunni Arab forces had been mobilized in different forms under the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi) banner. There are more Sunni tribal forces in Anbar and Ninewa, but tribal units also exist in Salah ad-Din and other liberated areas.
Although all of these forces fall under the PMF, the mobilization and support patterns and the relationships these Sunni forces have with other PMF or Coalition actors differed starkly between Ninewa and Salah ad-Din, the two governorates that this analysis will focus on. In Ninewa, a US-sponsored initiative to mobilize tribal forces resulted in much larger numbers overall, more consistent (if basic) training and supply levels, and a stronger connection between these forces and ISF and government actors. In Salah ad-Din, US-sponsored tribal mobilization was not allowed by the Iraqi government and larger Shi’a PMF groups stepped in to fill the void, supporting local affiliates in areas where they operate. Whether and how these differing initial mobilization and support patterns will affect the future longevity of these groups, and whether the Sunni mobilization effort will actually contribute to greater stability in the future are still open questions.
Background: the Sunni Awakening and Dismissal
As ISIL swept through Iraq, a critical enabling factor was the lack of resistance and sometimes open support of the Sunni population. Sunni populations in areas like Mosul and Tal Afar had for years suffered under the highly sectarian government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. In Tuz Khormatu district in Salah ad-Din, ISIL fighters did not even arrive in the city before locals, fed up with the Iraqi government’s treatment, flipped their own cities to ISIL’s cause.
This was not the first time that sectarian rivalry and exclusive security policies had bred radical extremist ideology and insecurity. The rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups in 2005 and 2006 was also fed by Sunni marginalization – mass de-Baathification after the US deposed Saddam Hussein created a reservoir of disempowered and disenchanted Sunni forces, a welcome recruiting pool that fed the growth of al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups. US forces were only able to successfully contain al-Qaeda and tamp down violence by mobilizing local Sunni tribal forces to their side, an initiative known as the Sons of Iraq, or the sahwa in Arabic (literally, the Sunni “Awakening”). By 2008, the US-backed sahwa groups included some 30 tribes and an estimated 80,000 to 95,000 forces, predominantly across the Sunni tribal areas where al-Qaeda was strongest – including in Anbar, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala.2
The counter-insurgency campaign was largely successful, and sahwa leaders expected to be repaid by being integrated into Iraqi security forces, and having a larger political voice, at least over their own Sunni Arab areas if not in the government as a whole. There had been discussions about integrating these groups into Iraqi forces, perhaps as a form of national guard or other local policing or defense units.3 However, al-Maliki never trusted the sahwa leaders, many of whom were former Saddam-era officials or former insurgents, and he had little interest in re-empowering Sunni political leadership.4 The Maliki government effectively dissolved the sahwa forces using the path of least resistance – the government did not appoint them to positions or simply stopped paying them regularly.5 Instead al-Maliki appointed sectarian-minded Shi’a leaders to key security posts across predominantly Sunni areas. Their heavy-handed treatment and sectarian-motivated abuses, often abetted by Shi’a militia forces, increased the sense of Sunni disenfranchisement and resentment toward the Iraqi government. Marginalized from security positions and left unprotected, Sunni tribal leaders who had been part of the sahwa were directly targeted and assassinated by remnants of al-Qaeda and by the fore-runners of ISIL.6
Given this background, by 2014, the last thing many Sunni tribal leaders wanted was to join sides with, or serve at the behest of, the Iraqi government and the Shi’a militia groups that dominated the anti-ISIL coalition. However, given their local knowledge and past success in helping to defeat Islamic extremists, Sunni tribal forces had the potential to play an extremely valuable role in re-capturing ISIL-controlled areas. In addition, many political leaders and international stakeholders (the US prominently among them) emphasized that Sunni participation would be important for the medium- to long-term stabilization and reconciliation process. They feared that unless Sunnis were given a role in the post-ISIL security landscape, the same radical elements would rise to the fore again after ISIL’s ouster. Such thinking led to the development of a US-backed tribal mobilization program based on the Sunni Awakening model. However, the Iraqi government only authorized the program to be established in Anbar and Ninewa, not in Salah ad-Din. This created significant differences in the nature and role of the Sunni tribal forces mobilized in the different governorates, as will be illustrated in case studies of the forces in Ninewa and Salah ad-Din below.
The key factor distinguishing Sunni mobilization in Ninewa from that in Salah ad-Din was a US-backed program for mobilizing, training, and equipping Sunni tribal leaders. The program was officially known within US circles as the Tribal Mobilization Forces (TMF), but all of the tribal forces mobilized within the TMF fall under the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) program, the official umbrella organization for forces and militias mobilized to support the anti-ISIL coalition since June 2014. Tribal forces and locals often refer to Sunni tribal forces as Hashd al-Asha’iri (literally the tribal hashd or tribal PMF), to distinguish them from the rest of the PMF, which are predominantly Shi’a.
The TMF program is officially an Iraqi government program, with all funding and support provided via the Iraqi government, but the US has been the driving force not only behind the funding but also the design and structure of the program. The TMF was modelled after the US experience with the Sunni Awakening, and driven by the idea that local tribal groups would be essential not only to counter ISIL forces, but also to manage the stabilization process post-liberation. The idea was that in the immediate campaign to recapture and hold areas, local forces could act as an important gap-filler and source of local manpower, freeing up ISF forces to move forward with offensive operations once they had captured an area.
The fact that local forces would be the ones taking on local policing and “holding” functions might also better address persistent security threats (such as ISIS sleeper cells) since they knew the local area. It also was thought to be more palatable to local Sunni communities than outside forces. “The idea was to mobilize them and allow them to deal with their own territory,” offered a representative at the US diplomatic mission to Iraq in Erbil who worked with the program. “These are local guys. They know who belongs there. It also tends to help with returns; people are more likely to go back when they know who is securing it and when they can settle their own grievances.” Finally, it was hoped that some degree of Sunni tribal engagement in the local security establishment might address the issues of political exclusion and disenfranchisement that had fed previous cycles of Sunni extremism. As the same US representative offered: “The idea was that this would be a form of ‘grassroots reconciliation’ – reconciliation in the sense of these [Sunni] groups not being disenfranchised and excluded from Iraqi forces and government.”
As of May 2017, approximately 18,000 tribal forces were registered in Ninewa, up from an estimated 15,000 at the end of 2016.7 Although Anbar was not a focus of the research, the TMF program also existed there and by May 2017, approximately 16,000 TMF forces were active in Anbar (10,000 on salary and 6,000 without pay), from a high of 20,000 to 25,000 at the end of 2016. Forces are expected to take regular leave, and even beyond regular leave cycles, attendance for regular duty assignments is not perfect. As a result, the effective force size at any given time is estimated to be half of what these official allocations suggest.
All of the US support for TMF salaries and equipment is channeled through the Iraqi government, via the Iraqi Train and Equip Funding (ITEF). The Iraqi government also decides on the number of forces authorized, and vets which forces can join the TMF, although the US and Kurdish officials also apply their own vetting procedures.8 This multi-layered approval process, with both Kurdish and Baghdad-based officials eager to veto any tribal leader they mistrust is part of the reason that the TMF grew so much more slowly in Ninewa than in Anbar.
Each of these forces is supposed to receive a brief, 10-day training, which introduces the basics of maneuvering and weapons skills, how to work as a unit, how to recognize and disarm IEDs, emergency first aid, and the laws of war and human rights obligations. However, training has been slow and challenging to organize; of the 18,000 forces authorized for Ninewa in May 2017, only 6,000 had received training. TMF training has been provided by Coalition forces, not only the US military but also Spanish, Dutch, and British trainers, among others.
There has been no deliberate outreach and recruitment program – it was not necessary, according to officials working with the program. Once word of mouth spread that tribal leaders could get training, equipment, and salaries for their forces, they began reaching out. The US official engaged in the program noted that it tends to be a “self-selecting” group. Most of these tribal leaders see that they cannot be seen sitting out the fight to retake territory if they want to have a claim on future control of their areas. Others are simply motivated by a desire for revenge on tribal rivals who sided with ISIL or for at least some influence on how these actors are dealt with.9
Most units have a political backer, usually a senior tribal figure (sometimes also an official political representative), who proposes establishing a unit. [Force mobilization is strongly connected to political dynamics. For example, in Ninewa there are 47 tribal units, 26 of which either have an active politician as a sponsor or a politically engaged sponsor. He often provides additional funding support to both the registered forces and a number of not-yet-authorized (i.e., unofficial) members of the unit. The political sponsor is often not a field commander, so most units effectively have a political or nominal leader and then an actual, tactical commander.
Although 18,000 tribal fighters across Ninewa may sound significant, they are carved up into 100 – 300 man battalion formations, which limits the influence of any one group and of the Sunni tribal forces as a whole. The limited unit size is intentional. Although Iraqi and Kurdish officials were willing to tolerate some mobilization, neither group wanted to deal with the potential political threat posed by a strong, cohesive Sunni force in Ninewa. A larger and more cohesive force might also arguably challenge the authority of the ISF and the Iraqi government’s authority, which would undermine the underlying purpose in mobilizing these forces – to contribute to stability and resumption of government control.
The largest force has just over 600 fighters. It belongs to a commander named Shaikh Nizzan Luhaybi, who uses his force to control the local area of Hajj Ali, a poor, rural area in Qayyara district on the border with Salah ad-Din. Nizzan earned this distinction by being one of the first tribal forces and by demonstrating a stronger ability to fight and hold areas than most other tribal commanders. It is also helpful for the Coalition to have a strong tribal force in Hajj Ali, which is a small backwater, far from population centers, but in a sensitive area vulnerable to ISIL. There are pervasive and signifi can’t ISIL threats in the area, emanating from just across the border in Shirqat, which was still partially under ISIL control at the time of writing. In addition, while 600 forces are enough for Nizzan to dominate Hajj Ali, where there are no other real competitors, they are not enough for him to exert a level of control over more significant areas to the north.
The intended purpose of these TMF – as local holding forces – largely plays out in practice. A general trend in Ninewa has been for ISF forces, notably the Iraqi Army, Special Forces, and Federal Police, to lead in recapturing an area and briefly hold it for a couple weeks. They then leave behind a contingent of the Federal Police and other forces supported by TMF to hold the area, while the main fighting forces advance further. In this “holding” role, tribal forces are assigned basic guard duties, such as manning checkpoints or guarding government facilities.
As intended, local forces have primarily been deployed in their local areas only. However, in some cases and largely due to shortages of forces in certain areas, tribal hashd have been deployed outside their local areas to hold other territories within Ninewa. For example, Sunni TMF forces that were largely drawn from other parts of Ninewa played a role in securing both east and west Mosul after liberation. Coalition tracking (shared with researchers) suggested that after the liberation of east Mosul, in February 2017, 11 TMF units (approximately 2,700 forces) were helping with holding operations in east Mosul.10 While some of these TMF forces were drawn from east Mosul communities, others were deployed from other areas of Ninewa, such as Qayyara. The same pattern of deploying TMF from other areas of Ninewa also appeared to be emerging in West Mosul just after liberation, with 10 TMF units assigned to liberated areas of West Mosul in mid-June 2017.11 Those working with the program noted it was harder to mobilize tribal fighters from urban Mosul than it was in other, more rural and tribally dominated areas, like Qayyara. Due to the shortage of forces to maintain control in East Mosul, some TMF forces had to be called in from other areas when other units moved on to operations in West Mosul.12
While the TMF program is dominant in Ninewa, there have been other Sunni mobilization efforts. The largest of these initiatives is a 3,000-strong force organized by former Governor Ateel Nujaifi in July 2014, which is now known as the Ninewa Guard Force and was previously called the Hashd al-Watani. Nujaifi originally mobilized his forces, with Turkish support, to be self-standing, which was viewed as a challenge to Baghdad’s authority and illegal (the Iraqi Constitution states that any group organized outside the Iraqi government is illegal). As of February 2017, they continued to receive training from Turkish forces. The majority of other reporting confirms that they also receive weapons and financial support from Turkey but both Turkey and Nujaifi deny this.
In an interview for this study, Nujaifi said he never considered mobilizing his forces under the TMF program because the limits on force numbers, equipment, and resources made it “no real fighting force.” The contrast between the level of training, weaponry, and equipment provided to Sunni TMF fighters and those provided to many Shi’a PMF forces (albeit largely by Iran) was evidence, in his view, that the decision to support a Sunni TMF “was a political decision by Baghdad to keep Sunni forces weak.”
While Nujaifi’s forces were initially independent, in late 2016, after the PMF law legalized the PMF structure as equivalent to Iraqi military forces, the Ninewa Guard Force officially joined the PMF. Referring to the PMF law, Nujaifi argued, “I believe it was a mistake, but we have to respect the law. I would prefer to place my force under the Iraqi army, but the PMF law is the law. And so, we had to join the PMF.”
Completely separate from Nujaifi’s forces, other Arab units under individual tribal leaders have joined the two larger forces in Ninewa (outside the ISF): the Peshmerga or the PMF. The KDP-Peshmerga has established a 2,000-strong tribal force known as the Jazeera Brigade in the Rabi’a, Zummar, and Ayyadhiya sub-districts of Tal Afar. The Jazeera Brigade includes two Sunni Arab battalions of 1,000 fighters each and one former TMF unit, which calls itself the Ninewa Lions. The commander of the unit says he switched over because the Iraqi government limited the number of fighters he could have as part of his TMF unit and because he felt Sunni forces received less equipment and pay than other forces did.
There have also been reports of TMF units switching programs and allying themselves with Shi’a PMF forces in exchange for more money and more advanced weapons and equipment than the US-backed program would offer them. Local Sunni groups are engaged in an “arms race,” said one US official at the US diplomatic mission to Iraq in Erbil, and each is seeking more advanced weaponry, more fighters, and more funding than their rivals (or potential future rivals). As this arms race ratchets up, the US policy will not keep pace with the much better equipped and less restricted Iranian-backed PMF forces. As the US official reflected, “This is why the US has trouble competing with the Iranians – they give more stuff, pay better, and do it quicker.”
There were some reports of Shi’a PMF recruiting Sunni tribal forces in Ninewa. For example, Badr Organization reports that local Sunni groups have joined their ranks in Ninewa. The RISE Foundation also reported that a Sunni tribal unit drawn from locals in Mosul, the “Mosul Hashd,” was stood up by the Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hizb Allah in Mosul.39 However, it was not possible to confirm how frequently this happens. Coalition tracking on TMF units is challenging because coalition and US partners cannot physically visit TMF units but keep touch remotely, by phone calls. In the very fluid situation in Ninewa, with a plethora of different armed actors, often not clearly identifiable, it is difficult to keep track of what any one force is doing, or whom they are affiliated with.
The Iraqi government did not allow a similar TMF program to be developed in Salah ad-Din, despite requests from tribal leaders, according to a US official. Instead, tribal forces wishing to fight ISIL have still joined the overall PMF umbrella group, but have largely done so in affiliation with one of the larger Shi’a PMF. The result has been a much smaller, more fractured, and politically fraught mobilization in Salah ad-Din.
Mobilization and recruitment of tribal forces in Salah ad-Din has generally followed two patterns. In some cases, large Shi’a PMF groups, primarily Badr and AAH, directly recruited local tribal forces in Salah ad-Din as they entered or cleared areas.13 The Shammari Brigade in Dour was initially mobilized around the time of liberation by both Badr and AAH. More recently, there are reports that in the late spring of 2017, a new group of Sunni PMF in Dour mobilized to support the Khorasani Brigades in the region. In these cases, Shi’a PMF often provide direct training to the Sunni forces mobilizing under their leadership (a pattern that has been mirrored in the Shi’a PMF mobilization of other local minority groups in Kirkuk).14
In other cases, tribal leaders used personal contacts in Baghdad to request that their forces be registered. To do so, though, they often had to go through one of the major Shi’a PMF groups or, once registered, were assigned to one of these groups for administrative management. Khalid al-Gibara, a former leader of al-Alam’s local Sunni tribal PMF force, called the Sons of al-Alam, illustrated some of these trends when he described how his forces formed. He said that when ISIL captured al-Alam, he and many of his tribal family members fled to Samarra, beyond the line of ISIL control. Through informal contacts and personal connections, via a person affiliated with AAH, al-Gibara expressed his intention to offer his al-Alam tribal forces as part of the PMF. In addition to making his initial connection through AAH, he said that the financial payments and other supporting weaponry and supplies they get from Baghdad are irregular. In order to effectively support his forces, al-Gibara decided that they would have to affiliate with a larger PMF force – in this case, AAH.
Although al-Gibara’s tribal unit was initially known as an AAH affiliate, he said they later gained more independence and moved away from the powerful Shi’a force because they did not like AAH’s behavior and conduct toward locals. Their motivation in mobilizing was to defend their local area, al-Gibara said, which was not necessarily AAH’s agenda in Salah ad-Din. Other interviewees also suggested that some of the al-Alam and Dour Sunni PMFs have been able to act more independently of their Shi’a PMF sponsors in 2017 because the situation has become more stable and Shi’a PMF forces’ direct control and influence in the Tikrit area have waned vis-à-vis government forces. Nonetheless, there is still some degree of affiliation and influence.
The necessity of linking themselves with Shi’a PMF, both as an initial mobilization and registration route and for continuing resource support, has led to a much smaller number of overall forces in Salah ad-Din. Many Sunni tribal leaders deeply mistrust Shi’a PMF and even those who later joined Shi’a PMF expressed mistrust for their motives in Salah ad-Din. Thus, the fact that tribal groups could only effectively join the PMF as an affiliate of these groups would have been a significant deterrent. As a result, fewer Sunni tribal forces have mobilized against ISIL in Salah ad-Din than in Ninewa. Although precise numbers are hard to track down, interviews with tribal leaders suggested that only 2,000−3,000 forces have been mobilized in all of Salah ad-Din, in contrast with the 18,000 registered in Ninewa. There is also a relatively higher number of forces from Dour, al-Alam, and Shirqat than in other areas.
The degree of PMF control or direction over tribal forces in Salah ad-Din depends in part on the role played by Sunni PMF in a given area. The earliest and most operational Sunni PMF group in Dour is known as the Shammari Brigade. It was formed in 2015, roughly concurrent with the liberation of Dour, and initially worked with both Badr and AAH. At the time of writing, it was closely affiliated with the Badr Organization’s 9th Brigade because the Shammari Brigade was assigned to help hold the frontline along the Jilliam Desert in Dour, an operation led by Badr’s 9th Brigade. Given this close tactical and operational role, Badr not only administered the Shammari Brigade’s salaries but also provided more regular, tactical direction. The Shammari Brigade also coordinated with the Khorasani Brigade, which was operating out of the nearby Hamreen mountains, although they did not report directly to them.
In other cases, the Shi’a PMF may be able to use their administrative control to ask for specific support from Sunni PMF but do not directly control day-to-day activities. In Shirqat, there is a tribal brigade known as the 51st Brigade, which is under the direction of Yassin J’bouri, one of the most prominent political actors in Salah ad-Din. The 51st Brigade reportedly has stronger independent fighting abilities and has been operative for longer. Moreover, due to its link with Yassin J’bouri and his political weight, this force has been able to operate with some degree of autonomy, both in terms of taking on particular operations and being less accountable to other security or political actors in Salah ad-Din. However, according to locals, the 51st Brigade still reports administratively to Shi’a PMF in the area, which offers a degree of leverage. Shi’a PMF are not primarily in Shirqat city, but they are posted along the main highway that is to the west of the city. Shi’a PMF periodically conduct what they describe as “inspection tours” in the Shirqat city area, or alternatively ask the 51st Brigade to conduct inspection tours and house searches on their behalf and to report back to them on what is found.
The relationship between Sunni and Shi’a PMF is not necessarily a one-way street and offers Sunni PMF advantages beyond financial support. An affiliation with these larger Shi’a PMF offers a degree of protection and autonomy. Members of the 51st Brigade have reportedly engaged in illegal activities outside Shirqat, most notably the extensive looting that happened in Tikrit immediately after liberation. This looting and destruction was quite targeted against rival tribes whom the Sunni PMF forces accused of supporting ISIL and, in many cases, of directly perpetrating acts of destruction or killing their family members when ISIL was in control. One local analyst framed it as a quid pro quo between the Shi’a PMF and the Sunni tribal forces affiliated with them at the time. During the recapture of Tikrit, Shi’a PMF were supposed to stay out of the area (following an agreement to withdraw that enabled US airstrike participation), and it was relatively easy for them to do so because they could leave much of the looting and revenge attacks to Sunni tribal forces. For their part, the Sunni PMF forces were happy to exact revenge on local tribal rivals who had supported ISIL and attacked their families only months before. The general absence of rule of law and protections offered by the more powerful Shi’a PMF were enabling factors that allowed the Sunni tribal PMF to carry out their revenge.
Finally, the more ad hoc nature of Sunni tribal mobilization has created meant that the role played by Salah ad-Din’s tribal forces varies much more than those in Ninewa. Most tribal forces in Salah ad-Din were established as needed or desired by Shi’a PMF, and the role they play tends to vary according to the support functions the latter need. In some areas, Sunni PMF simply act as local checkpoint guards or take on other community-policing functions. In other areas, though, they appear to be directly augmenting existing fighting forces – as has been true with the Shirqat PMFs and likely will be true with the new Khorasani Brigades – or helping to hold the frontline, as with the Badr-affiliated Shammari Brigades in Dour. By contrast, while some tribal forces in Ninewa have been closer to the frontline, the creation of these forces under the auspices of the TMF program (including its limitations on numbers, equipment, and local deployment patterns) has largely kept them in a holding and stabilization role.
The jury is still out on the medium- to long-term future for these groups, which were mobilized without a specific off-ramp or demobilization plan in mind. The cementing of the PMF’s status in the PMF law, the ongoing security threats in both Salah ad-Din and Ninewa, and the fact that Iraqi forces still do not have the manpower to deal with such threats suggest that there will not be any immediate plans to demobilize soon. As it is, new groups are being mobilized and added to the official roster every month.
If and when demobilization processes do begin, do the differing mobilization patterns and roles played by tribal forces in Ninewa versus Salah ad-Din affect the likely future role of these forces, whether they would be de-mobilized, and if not what role they would play? The relatively stronger affiliation of the Ninewa TMF forces with the Iraqi government, and their integration into regular, junior security roles on a consistent basis might augur for longer staying power for Ninewa’s tribal forces. They are already taking on basic security functions under the auspices of Federal Police and local police forces in a way that might naturally transition toward a local guard or constabulary force. They also have much higher numbers as a whole (18,000 versus a couple thousand in Salah ad-Din). Sudden demobilization or disbandment of the TMF forces would create an influx of unemployed local fighters at a scale not as present in Salah ad-Din.
On the other hand, the decision to keep each tribal unit small and distinct in Ninewa means that they ultimately have very little political power or independent influence. This is not to overstate the autonomy and strength of tribal forces in Salah ad-Din. Salah ad-Din Sunni forces’ subsidiary role to larger Shi’a PMF and their overall small numbers also make them a very minor and for the most part insignificant political actor in Salah ad-Din. However, some tribal forces operating in Salah ad-Din have been able to build up substantial and independent fighting capabilities and a greater degree of influence than the Ninewa TMF. In short, there are no Yassin J’bouri type brigades among the TMF in Ninewa. The one outlier, both in terms of fighting strength and degree of political autonomy, is Ateel Nujaifi’s Ninewa Guards Force, but it is not, as noted, part of the TMF. Even though the number of TMF forces overall is very high, their fractured nature and limited independent tactical and operational means would make them very easy to co-opt, disband, or marginalize in the future.
Another factor that is relevant to consider is tribal forces’ relationship with larger Shi’a PMF forces, which have significant staying power and political influence, and would be the last of any group to de-mobilize (if ever). In Ninewa, the US resourcing of the program via the Iraqi government has – at least until now – limited the number of Ninewa TMF seeking other support through the Shi’a PMF. It has also resulted in an overall stronger connection between the tribal forces and Iraqi federal authorities than in Salah ad-Din (albeit most prominently with the Federal Police, which have been so intermixed with Shi’a militia forces in the past that they can appear interchangeable in some ways). But there are already signs that this is changing, as TMF seek more generous and less constrained backers via Shi’a PMF. The US support for the TMF program is also not likely to be indefinite and may already be on the wane.
Without US support, the new, overall politically weak, non-Shi’a PMF are likely to be the first to be de-mobilized, or at least the first to stop being paid. This would tend to increase the need for tribal forces to seek other backers, such as the larger Shi’a PMF groups. As a result, one of the more likely short- to mid-term possibilities is that in both Ninewa and Salah ad-Din the only Sunni tribal forces that would continue to be supported would be those who were useful local affiliates of Shi’a PMF. While there is some evidence that Shi’a PMF groups like Badr have tried to act with greater sensitivity in Sunni-dominant areas, and have even brokered some local peace deals and mitigated tribal conflict, the overall vision of Sunni tribal forces existing only at the behest of Shi’a PMF does not appear to likely to lead to long-term stability. At a minimum, it does not seem likely to further the original rationale for mobilizing these forces – the idea that empowering and integrating Sunni forces at an equal level to Shi’a forces would reduce some of the drivers of Sunni radicalization.
1 Renad Mansour, “The Sunni Predicament in Iraq,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2016, carnegieendowment.org/files/CMEC_59_Mansour_Sunni_Final.pdf. ;
2 Estimates of the number of sahwa forces varies: the Miriam Benraad estimates 94,000 sahwa members as of November 2008, while the Guardian has an estimate of 80,000 sahwa forces in March 2008, and Ariel Ahram provides a range of “an estimated 75,000 to 100,00 men, almost all Sunnis” by the end of 2007. Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal ‘Sahwa’: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 18, no. 1 (March 2011) 121 – 131, http://www.mepc.org/iraqs-tribal-sahwa-its-rise-and-fall; Maggie O’Kane and Ian Black, “Sunni militia strike could derail US strategy against al-Qaida,” The Guardian, March 21, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/mar/21/iraq.alqaida; Ariel Ahram, Proxy Warriors (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 90.
3 Frederic Wehrey, Ariel Ahram, “The National Guard in Iraq: A Risky Strategy to Combat the Islamic State,” Carnegie, 2014, carnegieendowment.org/2014/09/23/national-guard-in-iraq-risky-strategy-to-combat-islamic-state.
4 Ted Carpenter, “A New Dictator?” The National Interest, January 19, 2010, nationalinterest.org/article/a‑new-dictator-3355.
5 By the time of US withdrawal in December 2011, only two-thirds of Sahwa members had been integrated into the ISF, and many were in temporary or lower-level positions. Austin Long, Stephanie Pezard, Bryce Loidolt, and Todd C. Helmus, “Locals Rule: Historical Lessons for Creating Local Defense for Afghanistan and Beyond” Rand, 2012, 160, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2012/RAND_MG1232.pdf.
6 David Ignatius, “How ISIS Spread in the Middle East and How to Stop It,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/how-isis-started-syria-iraq/412042/.
7 The Anbar program has always had a two-tier approach: one group of forces receive an official salary allocation ($500 per month), a food stipend, and a death benefit, and an equal or slightly smaller number (the ratio varies over time) of forces are part of what is called a “Shield Force.” These fighters serve without pay but with death benefits. An additional number of forces participate in activities with other tribal members on a de facto basis but fall into neither category. So at the high point of an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 forces at the end of 2016, many were not paid, or were not an official part of the program. In Ninewa, the program has always been more tightly controlled because of greater political sensitivities surrounding Sunni forces in Ninewa (from both the Kurdish and Iraqi sides). As a result, a greater number of tribal forces has always been “on budget,” with official salary allocations.
8 Recruits for the TMF in Ninewa typically underwent three types of vetting. The Iraqi National Security Service (NSS) does a criminal and terrorist background check. The Kurdish National Security office also does its own background check. Because US funding is involved, the US applies its own vetting. All US funding under the Iraq Train and Equip authority (known as section 1326, for the section of the National Defense Authorization Act it falls under) must be “vetted for associations with terrorist groups or with groups associated with the Iranian government, and must commit to promoting respect for human rights and the rule of law.” CRS brief: https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc811092/m2/1/high_res_d/IF10040_2015Jan09.pdf. For more on vetting for credible allegations of gross human rights violations, under the Leahy law, see https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/the-leahy-law-and-human-rights-accountability-in-afghanistan-too-little-too-late-or-a-model-for-the-future/.
9 The US official affiliated with the TMF coined this “revenge management.” He noted that for tribal leaders to have a role in deciding which other tribal leaders or groups in formerly ISIL-controlled areas are either killed, saved, or exiled, they need to arrive in the liberated areas first, with enough armed men to impose their will and decide what happens to whom.
10 This figure is based on tracking conducted by the US Diplomatic Mission to Iraq and was shared with the members of the research study.
11 This information is based on tracking conducted by the US Diplomatic Mission to Iraq, and shared with the members of the research study.
12 Not many TMF units were operating at a level where they could be deployed to other areas, according to those involved with them, but some of the older units had this capacity.
13 Even when groups are mobilized by Shi’a PMF, the tribal leader will still go through Baghdad to complete the formal registration process. This might happen before or after Shi’a PMF arrive in an area. For example, there are reports of prominent tribal leaders in an area being called to Baghdad to register their forces as the first step in the process.
14 For example, Turkmen forces stood up in Kirkuk governorate were provided training at the local PMF base at Taza Khurmatu, with some training provided by Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah instructors. A Badr Organization spokesman also noted in an interview for this study that they had provided training to Sunni PMF forces at the Taza camp, at the request of the Iraqi government. A small number of local Sunni forces drawn from Tikrit exist, but it is also possible that Sunni forces from neighboring Salah ad-Din are trained at the Taza camp.