The Looming Civil War in Iraq

In western political theory, a modern state claims a monopoly on violence. The government is the only entity allowed to enforce laws, execute prisoners, and wage war. Force of any kind, outside of self defense is punishable by law.

This case is not universal however. There are states where the recognized government’s lack the capacity or legitimacy to maintain this monopoly. Syria for example, has numerous groups that engage in warfare against both the Assad regime, ISIS and other militants groups. It is well known that Hezbollah has been fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria even though they are not part of the Syrian government (or even Syrian for that matter).

These other entities can also make deals outside of the government. Most of Israel’s oil comes from Iraqi Kurdistan. This, despite the fact that Iraqi government doesn’t even have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. The Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq even receive military assistance outside of the central government; even though they are not recognized as being legitimate organs of the state.

Problems with this model

Often, having two powers capable of warfare inside the same country creates problems because the goals and methods of the militia often do not line up with those of the official government.While this model can sometimes be managed as in the case of Iraq (up until now), many times it cannot be; and the results of these situations can be catastrophic.

Case in point: the 2006 Lebanon war

Lebanon for example, hosts Hezbollah as a separate political entity capable of violence. Apart from being an internationally recognized terrorist organization, Hezbollah is backed by a foreign government in Iran and has the military capacity to begin a war with another nation (Israel) at any time. Because of this, Hezbollah has the ability to determine Lebanese foreign policy outside the military and the government.

In 2006 Hezbollah made this very apparent by conducting a terrorist attack against Israel. This attack created a crisis that resulted in the 2006 Lebanon war. The Israeli military responded to the attack by mounting an invasion of Southern Lebanon to combat Hezbollah.

During the war the recognized government could do little to control the violence. Most of their duties were confined to keeping order in the streets. While they sat aside,the Israeli Defense Force’s warplanes, tanks and howitzers blasted southern Lebanon. The government in Beirut simply sat out the war while foreign soldiers hunted Hezbollah inside their territory. They were simply powerless to act, and admitted as much after the war could not disarm Hezbollah after the war.

How this relates to Iraq

In the case of Iraq, the continued mobilization of the Hashd Shia militias after the war against ISIS ends could lead to the creation of a separate militant entity or state within a state forming in Iraq like Hezbollah in Lebanon . Right now, the militias are estimated to control somewhere from 60,000 to 140,000 soldiers, equipped with small arms, artillery and combat vehicles. This is a formidable force that has proven both it’s might in battle and it’s sectional loyalties.

M1A1-Abrams-tank-draped-in-Hezbollah-flag-e1420750328467
A Hezbollah affiliate with an M1A1 tank in Iraq. Many advanced combat vehicles have made their way into Iran backed militias in Iraq.

The Hashd are known for both their sectarianism and brutality. The have attacked Sunni holy sites, massacred prisoners and tortured their own members. They also have ties to Iran, where they derive significant material support. A Militia like this could create havoc in post-war Iraq; especially given the current fragile and divided nature of the state.

The coming storm

Dark clouds are already on the Horizon. Kurdish commanders in Iraq have already warned that territorial disputes are likely to erupt after the fight against ISIS ends. The Iraqi Kurds have already called for a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. If independence was to be declared after the war the Kurdish state would certainly claim the disputed territory now in the possession of the Peshmerga and their Sunni allies. This would definitely result in conflict with the militias. If fighting breaks out over disputed territory in northern Iraq and the Shia militias fail to disarm violence could snowball into another civil war in Iraq.

 

Disputed_areas_in_Iraq.svg
A map showing disputed areas of Iraq Kurdistan. Red areas are official parts of the KRG, pink have been under de-facto Kurdish control since 1991 and the tan areas are disputed.

A weak government in Baghdad

If such a claim were made, the central government in Baghdad might not be able to control the situation on the ground. Iraqi regular forces are not as motivated as the Hashd or the Peshmerga. This is evidenced by a recent Daily Beast report, which documented Iraqi forces fleeing their positions after taking light artillery fire from ISIS. The Kurds, on the other hand, were said to have held their ground.

The Hashd, are just a determined. The militias have proven that the government cannot control them.* Should the two factions clash over control of territory in northern Iraq it could quickly escalate beyond the ability of the central government to control the violence. Like Lebanon, a war in Iraq might happen outside of the ability of the government to actually influence the outcome.

Implications

Right now, every faction in Iraq is focused on the extermination of Da’ish. This common enemy has forced the factions to put tribal and sectarian loyalties aside to focus on bigger threat. But this will not last forever. Very much like post war Europe after the defeat of the Nazis, allies will turn into enemies and old rivalries will reemerge in Iraq fairly quickly.

The war between the Kurds and Hashd is likely to be long and bloody. The Kurds make up over 8.35 million citizens out of an Iraqi population of just under 33 million. Large portions of Iraq’s oil reserves are also under Kurdish control.The stakes would be high and the players would be extremely determined.

The defeat of ISIS will not mean the end of war in Iraq. The fight has empowered and battle hardened both the Hashd and the Peshmerga. To some extent it has also discredited the Iraqi army as the sole wielder of force in Iraq. Given the disastrous results that this power structure has had in the region and the looming conflict with the Kurds, the future of Iraq is uncertain at best.

 

*see AP report.


 

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