US Withdrawal Big Test for Iraqi Security Forces

Some suggest Sunni and Shia insurgents and Ba’athists could take advantage of pullout to cause mayhem.

US Withdrawal Big Test for Iraqi Security Forces

Some suggest Sunni and Shia insurgents and Ba’athists could take advantage of pullout to cause mayhem.

Tuesday, 23 June, 2009

Iraq’s military and government are expected to face a major security test as United States troops prepare to withdraw troops from Iraqi cities, according to local analysts.

US troops are scheduled to pull out of major cities on June 30, giving domestic security forces full authority of metropolitan areas for the first time since 2003.

A government spokesman early last month announced that the pullout will occur on schedule, quelling speculation that Iraq would ask the US to extend its withdrawal date due to a spike in bombings over the last eight weeks. American military officials have said they will abide by the agreement, which also stipulates that US forces fully withdraw by end of 2011.

Ministry of interior spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalaf called the withdrawal "a test to show people the abilities and capabilities of our security forces ... With the cooperation of [Iraqis], we will pass this test. We trust our security forces and their abilities".

While Baghdad insists it is capable of handling security, local analysts say Sunni fighters and Shia militias could pose a serious threat to domestic security forces and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government.

Shia militias, most notably radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, and the Sunni-led insurgency are expected to remain the biggest sources of instability, said analysts.

In addition, foreign fighters are reportedly trickling into Iraq from Syria once again, and there are concerns that militias could infiltrate the security forces.

Mohammad Kamil, a former high-ranking officer in the Iraqi military, warns that Iraqi militias and foreign forces will continue to cause problems for years to come.

"We expect trouble from two groups: the Sunni Awakening Councils and Shia Mehdi army militias who may re-group their fighters under different names," said Kamil. “The government will have the challenge of convincing those groups not to take up arms.”

The Awakening Councils, charged with maintaining security in largely Sunni areas, are credited with playing a significant role in countering al-Qaeda. Originally sponsored by the US military, they were transferred into Iraqi government hands last year. The authorities promised to continue paying council members and gradually find them jobs in the security forces and public sector.

But the integration process has been far from smooth. The Sunni fighters are a prime target of insurgents, who consider them traitors, and are also eyed with suspicion by officials who question their allegiances.

Moreover, they have sparred with Maliki’s government over everything from the arrests of their members – some of whom are being held on terrorism charges – to delayed paychecks for their services.

Some worry that disillusioned council members could choose to rejoin the insurgency.

Political tensions have also grown between the government and Sadr loyalists. The Mehdi Army last year lost control of many parts of Baghdad and Basra following massive assaults by the Iraqi military. Politicians loyal to Sadr and his militia accuse Maliki of adopting dictatorial policies and using Iraq’s security forces to persecute his political foes.

Abu Mohammad Al-Naji, a Mehdi Army leader in Sadr City, told IWPR that the militia does not plan to attack government forces following the US withdrawal. But he did not rule out the use of violence, calling the Iraqi army “the enemy”.

“We won’t keep silent if the government tries to target us again like what happened in Baghdad and Basra,” said Naji.

The interior ministry has requested an additional 62,000 police hires to beef up security, said Khalaf, but funding is problematic due to Iraq’s shrinking oil revenues and budget cuts.

Still, Khalaf said the security forces “have plans to be just as capable as the American forces or perhaps even more so”.

Security “is going to be the biggest challenge in the next six months, especially because the [January 2010] parliamentary elections are around the corner”, said military analyst Muhammed Ajaj.

He predicted that the security forces and Awakening Councils will face attacks in volatile areas, but that they will subside.

Ajaj said Baghdad will continue to rely on the US for aerial power – a weakness in the Iraqi military – as well as tactical and intelligence support.

Majid al-Sari, a former defence ministry adviser, expressed concern that the security forces and the military could be infiltrated by militias without American oversight.

“We do not have a professional army,” said Sari. “The army is heavily divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, which at the moment seem to be fully camouflaged with the US troop presence. But this could change."

Hamid Fadhil, deputy dean of political sciences at Baghdad University, agreed. “The Iraqi security services remain immature; ethnic and partisan allegiances are much stronger than the sense of patriotism,” he said.

“This is also the case in the Iraqi society as a whole, our loyalty for our groups are stronger than for our country.”

Sari expressed concern that Ba’athists will re-emerge in the army, and that “there is no guarantee that such groups won’t launch a coup against the government after the US pullout”.

Fadhil pointed out that there are reports of infiltration of Ba’ath elements in many of the government and security institutions. “This indeed signals a warning of a strong Ba’ath comeback,” he said.

Fadhil warns that that the pullout is premature and dangerous, “Fears over renewed conflict are highly legitimate. The timing is not right for the withdrawal..since it could mean the end of all the gains we achieved over the past five years, taking us back to square one.”

Basim al-Shara, Abeer Mohamed and Daud Salman are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad.

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