The Realities Within Iraq- Sectarian Violence, Armed Militias, and Optimistic Spin

Recently numerous reports have been released attempting to describe the state of affairs in Iraq. Many of the government accounts cast the current situation in Baghdad with the typical optimistic light. But the realities I saw were quite different. I recently returned home from Iraq, after serving as a civilian Senior Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Interior, located in the Red Zone near Sadr City. I was in a position to work every day with the Iraqi leadership charged with establishing security in Baghdad and throughout the rest of Iraq. In that time, I developed a strong working relationship and personal friendship with many Iraqi leaders from the various influential parties, all grasping for power within the country. Based upon countless meetings, private discussions over meals, and other experiences with my Iraqi associates, my observations are likely different from the many reports. From what I have seen, Iraq continues to be riven with deep sectarian divisions, brutal militias, and is currently engaged in a vicious sectarian civil war in a crude bid for power. The Ministry of Interior is responsible for the police forces, border security, counter-terrorism, and domestic intelligence (similar to the U.S. FBI) throughout Iraq. It is arguably the most important and influential ministry within the Iraqi government. But, like other Iraqi government ministries, it is thoroughly infiltrated by the violent armed militias operating within Iraq bent on destroying the fragile government currently in place. The Ministry of Interior building is located south of Sadr City, and as a result of its hiring procedures, proximity, local religious affiliations, and other factors, it is greatly influenced by this Shi’a dominated section of Baghdad. Sadr City, controlled by the Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr, and named for his father, is the home and de facto headquarters of the violent militia Jaysh al Mahdi or Mahdi Army. Sadr City is also one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad, and notorious for attacks against the Coalition while on patrol through the neighborhoods. The militia crisis is so severe within the Ministry of Interior and surrounding areas, many Iraqi leaders refuse to leave their offices even within the building without the benefit of an armed escort. Given the severity of the threat environment, the Coalition personnel at the Ministry also wisely abide by strict force protection measures. The Mahdi Army is just one of many legal violent armed militias operating within Baghdad and throughout the rest of Iraq. Its funding comes from a myriad of sources including private donations, the Iraqi government through the influence of its members, and Mafia-esque activities to include kidnapping, racketeering, and control of the streets. But, most of its finances, training, and Shi’a religious indoctrination come from Iran through close ties with the Militia’s leadership. I have had numerous meetings and informal discussions with different Iraqi leaders, both associated with and against the various militias, and understand in the current state of Iraqi affairs, regrettably, the militias have tremendous local and government support. Furthermore, the militia problem and its consequences within the Ministry of Interior are merely indicative of the larger predicament found within Iraq. The Roman statesman Cicero stated it was the enemy within the walls which he feared most. Following this example, the Iraqi leadership must understand to achieve victory against an external enemy like transnational terrorism it must first clean the ‘inner vessel.’ In addition, the internal enemy must be clearly identified, agreed upon, and rooted out before a nation can fight a successful campaign. However, within Iraq, there is confusion about who the actual enemy of the government even is. All agree al Qaida is among the foes. But, what about the various militia groups which control many sections of Baghdad, influence the government, cause fear throughout Iraq, and viciously attack the Coalition convoys. The violent militias, personal armies, and the ‘spirit of mercenary-ism’ rip at the very fabric of Iraqi society and threaten to destroy the fragile government currently in place. Lamentably, many Iraqi parliamentary members and other government leaders are affiliated with groups such as Jaysh al’ Mahdi, Badr, or SCII which sponsor militias and violence. The Coalition presently has thousands of valiant men and women risking much to train the Iraqi military and police to become an effective fighting force. But, among the many problems caused by government sanctioned militias and not clearly identifying the enemy, is the professional instruction given lacks a key ingredient. The Coalition trains the Iraqis to fight effectively, but without clear guidance, they fail to teach them why or against whom. Consequently, once the Coalition completes its training regimen, many of the newly trained recruits join the militias overtly or covertly, instead of fighting for the military or police forces. After all, the pay is usually much better and there is always steady work. This consequence only augments the strength of the insurgency and acerbates the violence and instability within Iraq. While training the Iraqis, I was in a position to observe this critical and widespread problem firsthand. If militia influences continue to be sanctioned by the Iraqi government, it will subsequently evolve into a militaristic regime ruled by whoever controls the largest militia. Lebanon’s election of Hezbollah members and Palestine’s election of HAMAS and FATAH are a few contemporary examples of elected governments voting in violent organizations, whose agendas are bent on expansion and war. It is likely these governments will evolve more antagonistic, evocative of all societies whose political parties control private armed militias, and as always, the people will ultimately suffer. Representative government cannot, nor will not exist for long if policy decisions are being influenced through force or fear. If stable and effective representative government is to be obtained, Iraq must identify and outlaw the armed militias. It must collect its weapons and prosecute its leaders according to Iraqi law. It is extremely difficult to create an accurate assessment of the real war from the confines of the Green Zone or from the Potomac. As a civilian Senior Policy Advisor working within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, I was in a position to build strong relationships with, and observe many Iraqis tasked with establishing security throughout Iraq. Some of these leaders were associated with the violent militias; others were averse to them and understood their harmful effects on government. Both groups compete to establish dominance and control Iraq according to their own proclivities and values. Few are in a position to observe the realities of the war firsthand. Fewer are willing to tell the tale. The young brave members of the military running the convoys, or being fired on by insurgents and militias alike see many of the realities, as do the civilian advisors throughout the Red Zone training the Iraqi military and police. They see the Ministry of Interior as a microcosm of the greater problems facing Iraq, and they understand if Iraq continues down its current course, and the US government continues to receive optimistic spin instead of realities, Iraq will inevitably march down the road of self destruction and bloodshed. And that benefits no one.