Iraq is facing the ultimate test in rebuilding a government-controlled military
The presence of militias can challenge the supremacy of the state
Existential threats can prompt states and people to do things that they would, in ordinary circumstances, reflexively recoil from. The fight against ISIL was an extraordinary challenge and Iraq made choices commensurate to the threat. Now that Iraq has emerged victorious, the challenge before it is to reverse the temporary arrangements – chief among them the legal sanction given to paramilitary forces – necessitated by the demands of war. The decision by Iraq's parliament last November to recognise the Popular Mobilisation Units, otherwise known as Hashed Al Shaabi, compounds the challenge. As Iraq seeks to eliminate the influence of such groups on its fragile political system, the call on Friday by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani to eliminate the politicisation of the force is welcome. However, the problem of armed groups outside the fold of government control remains a fundamental problem for Iraq and other countries that are emerging from conflict. If we were to accept Max Weber's definition of the modern state as "monopolising the legitimate use of physical force" then states like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria , Libya and Yemen are facing the ultimate test.
Iraq needs a strong state but the lesson of history is that the presence of heavily armed militias can corrode and compromise the supremacy of the state. The military is an extension of the state’s power, but there is a stage in every country’s development when militia can also wrest power from civilian rulers. As Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said on Saturday, the Iran-backed Houthi militias who have plundered Yemen to the tune of $5 billion are no more than “a sectarian militia of thieves, which draws its power from fear, by way of arms”.
For a state to function cohesively, it is imperative that its military sees itself as the defender of its professed values. The difficulty in integrating the Hashed Al Shaabi into the Iraqi military is that it is not a single unit but an umbrella organisation that contains within it multiple groups. The ideology of some of those units is consonant with the ideology of the Iraqi state, but other units are fifth columns that pledge allegiance to foreign powers.
A model military is one that is always answerable to the state it serves. Iraq, re-emerging from the bloodiest phase in its recent history, needs both a strong police force and a powerful military. Each should know its obligations—and its limits.
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