The Mideast has a Militia Problem: Does Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani Have the Answer?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called for Iraq’s Shiite militias to come under control of the central government.

One of the problems facing the Middle East has been the rise of autonomous militias, who are often more powerful than the state and its army. You have Hizbullah in Lebanon, you have the militias in Libya that declined to stand down after the 2011 revolution, and you have the Shiite militias in Iraq. You even had the “Awakening Councils” of Iraqi Sunnis under US occupation, most of whom were not absorbed by the Iraqi army once the US left.

The Iraqi Shiite militias have played a valuable role in defeating ISIL in that country. But if they remain a set of separate military forces now that its defeat has been formally announced by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi, they threaten to throw the country into further turmoil.

I don’t think the militias were created by the 2014 ruling of Sistani calling for young Iraqis to serve their country by taking on ISIL. The militias often existed before that ruling, and the ruling itself seems to me to insist that the volunteers remain under the authority of the Iraqi government.

But the ruling does seem to have reinvigorated some militias and led others to be founded. Now what?

Sistani insists that all military arms in Iraq must remain under the ultimate control of the Iraqi army. He urged all militia members to be integrated into the national armed forces.

This step was, by the way, urged on the government of then prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, with regard to the Sunni Awakening Councils. But of 100,000 men, only about 13,000 were hired by the government in 2009 and after. You could argue that the US should not have helped create those Sunni militias to fight al-Qaeda, or you could argue that al-Maliki should have given them government jobs. But it seems clear that they became an element of disorder.

Sistani wants the al-Abadi government to avoid this mistake, by incorporating the militiamen into the regular armed forces and police.

But Iraq should be careful to bring some Sunnis into the army alongside these militiamen, or you’d just turn the army into a Shiite militia.

This Iranian take on the decision below, from Press TV, seems to me to misrepresent what is reported of Sistani’s appeal. Press TV says that Sistani wants the militias to retain their own corporate identity but to report to the Iraqi military. The Arabic press quotes him as using the word indimaj, which would be a melding into the armed forces:

Press TV: “Ayat. Sistani: PMU must be incorporated in state security institutions”

Posted in Featured,Iraq | 7 Responses | Print |

7 Responses

  1. I not sure I follow entirely the argument that these militias are a separate entity. For instance: where do they get their funding and arms from? Further, who allocates them land and property to have a base etc. There is also the matter of communications and strategy they would need to operate effectively. Militias are essentially factional based and are usually employed in fighting those who are not part of their clan. More often than not, its resistance to the army (the government) that has brought about the formation of the militias in the first place. I suspect that as long as there is racial and religious intolerance in the middle East there will always be tension and conflict with militias being vital to the various factions.

      • Not necessarily. We have tons of armed militias in the USA, despite a strong well established centralized government.

        • The problem is your use of “tons.” Lebanon has 4 million citizens and 25,000 Hizbullah fighters. That would be equivalent to a massive army of 2 million US fighters under arms with training, medium and heavy weaponry, and line of command, twice as large as the US military. Doesn’t exist.

    • “….where do they get their funding and arms from.”

      Answer: Iran, largely via assistance in arms, training, and funding from the al-Quds Force; multinational pharmaceutical companies also help, per allegations in recent federal lawsuit.

      Some links:

      link to

      link to

      “……who allocates them land and property to to have a base etc….(?)”

      Answer: Iraqi militias, the Mahdi Army for example, administer their own police force and a court system imposing religious law as well as a social welfare network to support the population it controls.

  2. War is bestial because it kills compassion and that’s what’s left without it. What militias do when their primary task is over is an ancient problem. Only a citizen army raised for finite domestic purpose has the ability to dissolve back into the society from which it emerged. The Romans reflected this with their deity Janus who presided over the beginning and ending of conflict and whose temple doors were symbolically opened when men went to war, and closed when they returned home. In Europe, the Thirty Years war was one of the most brutal examples of the devastation foot-loose militia inflict. Something quite soulless happens to men in war. (vide the German novel Simplicius Simplicissimus link to We tend to obscure those truths by isolating examples and pinning them on individuals or specific groups. The prospect is almost more daunting than the war since it can lead to directionless chaos.

    • war loosens the strictures of accountability,
      which is why it is so badly wanted by politicians and Generals.
      And a few dangerous soldiers.

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