The Iraqi war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State cannot be won with military means alone, nor can it be won without an armed force able to roll back the salafi-jihadist group as a prelude to reunifying the country. However, the Iraqi state’s institutional deficiencies and severe sectarian polarization have impeded these efforts, weakening the force that would be best suited to play this role: the official Iraqi Armed Forces.
In the summer of 2014, several Iraqi army divisions collapsed as the Islamic State captured Mosul. In response, the government launched a national recruitment campaign that seeks to enroll paid volunteers as career officers. The reason that the Iraqi military relies on volunteer recruits (mutatawi’een) rather than instituting a draft is partly related to the traumatic legacy of conscription policies under the 1979 to 2003 dictatorship of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It would also be difficult to enforce a draft across Iraqi territory, given the divided state of the country. Nevertheless, the result is that even though tens of thousands of Iraqis are eager to take up arms against the Islamic State, the official military has failed to meet its recruitment needs. Instead, volunteers prefer to join non-state armed groups like those gathered in the Popular Mobilization Forces, known in Arabic as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or various tribal militias, commonly referred to as Abna al-Ashair, or sons of the tribes.
A training program launched in 2014 by the American-led international coalition against the Islamic State has stalled because of a lack of public interest in joining the national military. Instead of the expected 24,000 volunteers for the program, the Ministry of Defense has only been able to attract 9,000 recruits, with some regional recruitment centers receiving no applications at all.
Weak and Discredited National Institutions
There are obvious reasons why Iraqis would hesitate to join the military. The collapse of the Iraqi Armed Forces to a small force of Islamic State fighters in Mosul in the summer of 2014 remains in recent memory. The military’s reputation has been further tarnished by rampant corruption. Stories include the phenomenon of nonexistent “ghost soldiers,” whose salaries at one point made up as much as 25 percent of the annual defense budget, as well as countless tales of bribery. For example, junior officers have reportedly been forced to pay $3,000 in bribes to attend the Officer Training Academy. Others complain of delays in receiving salaries.
Nor is the Iraqi military necessarily seen as a patriotic, unifying, and truly national institution. Some of the reasons for this date back to the era of Nouri al-Maliki. Originally elected as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006, Maliki served as both prime minister and defense minister from 2010 to 2011. He then established the Office of the Commander in Chief, which attached military command functions directly to the presidency. In doing so, he stripped the Ministry of Defense of influence and undermined its autonomous functioning, causing some Iraqis to perceive the armed forces as “Maliki’s Army” rather than the Iraqi Army.
Even though Maliki was succeeded by Haider al-Abadi in 2014, these problems remain. Many Iraqis question the autonomy of the Ministry of Defense vis-à-vis the Ministry of Interior, which is controlled by the Badr Organization, an Iran-backed Shia paramilitary group in the Popular Mobilization Forces. There is also a perception among some that Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who is a Sunni Iraqi, lacks real influence. Finally, some are also wary of Washington’s insistence on working through the Ministry of Defense instead of directly arming units on the ground. While the U.S. intention was presumably to empower Obeidi and help him centralize control, some Iraqis now perceive the ministry as U.S.-backed, thereby paradoxically weakening its legitimacy.
These reasons have pushed Iraqis, many of whom are undoubtedly willing to fight the Islamic State, away from joining the formal state security apparatus and toward the more attractive paramilitary options. These consist of a large number of local militias, some of them gathered into larger national networks. While some of the groups predate current events, many of their recent recruits have joined in response to a fatwa—that is, an Islamic legal ruling—which was issued in summer 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most senior Shia cleric. These militias, which mostly consist of Shia Muslims, have gathered under a state-backed umbrella organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, but they remain essentially autonomous.
The rise of these militias has served to dilute Iraqi state sovereignty and limit the influence of the Ministry of Defense. Nevertheless, the Popular Mobilization Forces have emerged as Iraq’s largest coalition of military forces in the struggle against the Islamic State. As such, the Ministry of Defense finds itself forced to work with these groups and even to fund them.
Political and Demographic Challenges to Military Recruitment
To attract new recruits and overcome its tarnished legacy, the ministry has launched a major recruitment campaign. It includes a weekly hour-long television program entitled Guarding Iraq (Himayat al-Iraq). They air on the state broadcaster Al Iraqiya, which also regularly runs Ministry of Defense recruitment commercials. In addition, the campaign includes the publication of a weekly newspaper called the Tent of Iraq (Khaymat al-Iraq).
Despite its ambition to serve as a national institution, the ministry has failed to reach out to some segments of the Iraqi population—and in turn, they evince little interest in joining the military. Iraq’s Kurds are more likely to join their own Peshmerga forces and many Sunnis are often distrustful of Iraqi state institutions. Consequently, most of the recruits available to the military are Shia Arabs from southern Iraq. This has led to a recruitment rivalry between the Ministry of Defense and the Popular Mobilization Forces.
A general in the Iraqi Armed Forces has told this author that from the pool of potential Shia Iraqi recruits, those with connections to the main politico-military groups—notably the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Hezbollah Battalions, and various pro-Sistani factions—and those from wealthier or better-connected backgrounds, will typically join the Popular Mobilization Forces rather than the national military. This has reduced the pool of potential Ministry of Defense recruits to Shia Iraqis who lack an affiliation with those groups and who come from lower socio-economic classes.
The Ministry of Defense accordingly seeks to target urban Shia Arabs from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Many in this group are followers of the popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who runs a powerful Shia Islamist militia but who is also wary of certain dominant groups in the Popular Mobilization Forces. The ministry has sought to exploit his popularity to win recruits from this large demographic. For example, in January 2015 Al Iraqiya broadcasted a Guarding Iraq episode that featured a joint press conference with Sadr and Defense Minister Obeidi.
Another way of attracting recruits from this segment of the population is by highlighting economic incentives. Despite being out-funded by the militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the ministry continues to highlight the prospect of economic rewards in its media campaign. The opening montage of Guarding Iraq always includes a clip of Obeidi eating a big meal with soldiers from the Iraqi Armed Forces. Similarly, television and press propaganda during the holy month of Ramadan have featured reports of Obeidi breaking the fast with his soldiers. The message is clear: for those who are struggling to find bread, the Iraqi Armed Forces is an option.
The Ministry of Defense also seeks to highlight its formal status to differentiate itself from its recruitment rival, the Popular Mobilization Forces. Specifically, the ministry tends to focus on airpower, because the paramilitary groups do not have this option at their disposal. The Iraqi Air Force, which last week received a batch F16 fighter jets from the United States, is a widely recognized symbol of national prestige, and it is no coincidence that the opening segments of Guarding Iraq begin with a clip of airplanes and helicopters soaring through the air. Obeidi, whose professional background is as an air force engineer, will also often wear the Iraqi Air Force uniform. The ministry’s promotional videos also feature formal military parades by the military—again used to differentiate the official Iraqi Armed Forces from paramilitary groups like the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Finally, the Ministry of Defense continues to play on Iraqi nationalist sentiment and anti-sectarianism, despite its own overrepresentation of Shia Iraqis. As an example, a promotional video entitled “Iraq in Our Hearts” features soldiers saluting the flags on their uniform. Another promotional video shows an Iraqi man listening to foreign sectarian commentary on Iraq on the radio; eventually, the man stands up and smashes the radio, as the message “listen to Iraq” is displayed on the screen. The introduction of the ministry’s weekly television program also features Obeidi saying “we don’t differentiate between citizens,” and one episode shows Iraqi soldiers rescuing members of the Yezidi religious minority from the Islamic State, with the message “this is our religion.” This push for a united Iraqi nationalism, rather than any sub-national sectarian, ethnic, or regional identity is apparent throughout the recruitment campaign—again setting the Ministry of Defense apart from many of the militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The Future of Iraqi Military Recruitment
By and large, the Ministry of Defense is not faring well in its competition for recruits, who tend to favor the Popular Mobilization Forces. The latter is generally better funded and more appealing to Shia Iraqis who are terrified and outraged by the Islamic State’s repeated massacres of Shia prisoners of war and civilians. In addition, the weakened ministry remains dependent on these groups to provide security.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Iraq’s other top-ranking Shia clerics, known as the marjaiya, enjoy tremendous influence in their community. They could one day play an important role in demobilizing the Popular Mobilization Forces and shifting fighters over to the national military. But this is unlikely to happen until these clerics feel that enough has been done to fulfill Sistani’s 2014 fatwa—which originally launched the Popular Mobilization Forces—and that the threat from the Islamic State has receded. Sistani specifically issued a so called wajib al-kifah (obligation to fight) fatwa, which means that he can rescind the ruling and thus disband the militias when he deems enough has been done to combat the Islamic State.
But until then, the Ministry of Defense will continue to suffer from competition from the Shia militias, while struggling with its own religious imbalance, its poor reputation and corruption, and other structural flaws that impede effective and cross-sectarian recruitment of soldiers and career officers to the Iraqi Armed Forces.