Since the first days of assuming its duties, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has worked to put in place practical measures to reform the security sector in Iraq. This has made it in constant confrontation with the loyalist factions that are linked to Iran and that reject any reform process of the Iraqi security services, especially when those reforms target the existence and elements of those factions. This was demonstrated, for example, by the recent measures taken by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS), namely the deployment of a number of its members at Iraqi border crossings. While the INIS emphasised that this procedure was of a purely technical and administrative nature, the factions insisted on conferring a political dimension on it, and made of it a pretext to escalate the existing tension with the Kadhimi government.

The security approach of the Kadhimi government

The Kadhimi government has adopted a security approach that combines both the hard and soft dimensions in dealing with the loyalist factions and their presence within the Iraqi security services. The general frameworks of the said approach are as follows:

  • Empowering the Iraqi state through the gradual limitation of the power of those factions, in a manner that would make the option of confronting and containing them easier at later stages. This policy included the procedures of targeting the government positions that were acquired by the loyalist factions in violation of the law, containing their economic offices that control the wealth and public funds,[1] and reducing the presence of their affiliated elements within the security services through the processes of replacement, transfer and dismissal, in a legal and constitutional manner, while being careful not to give the process a political dimension.
  • Restricting international support to the official Iraqi security forces, and depriving the loyalist factions of it in order to empower the Iraqi forces, increase the difference between them and the factions, and try to bring the latter to the stage of voluntary integration into the Iraqi security services.

While this approach was successful in restricting the work of the loyalist factions, it faced important challenges, namely the continued possession by those factions of the capability of security provocation and threatening political stability, which prompted the Kadhimi government to accept interim balances, until the state regained its full strength, in addition to the insistence by the Shiite political blocs on assuming leadership positions in the sensitive security services, including the INIS and the National Security Services (INSS), which are run on an interim basis, as opposed to the endeavour by the Kadhimi government to exclude those positions from political considerations, specifically those related to the political actors that have tense relations with the US.

The Kadhimi government’s measures to reform the security sector

The Kadhimi government has taken many procedures and measures related to the reform of the security sector and gradually reducing the power of the loyalist factions. Those measures included the following:

  • At the economic level, since 14 September 2020, the Kadhimi government has made many changes in the economic institutions, border crossings and ports, in addition to the Integrity and Securities Authorities, in order to enhance the government's control over the sources of national income and secure funds for the government to confront the economic crisis, while at the same time depriving the factions of important illicit financial sources.[2]
  • At the security level, since 4 July 2020, the Kadhimi government has made many security changes that affect the INSS and its Advisory, in addition to the National Operations Command, the Air Defence Command and the Special Forces Division for the Protection of the Green Zone, in order to create conducive conditions for the Iraqi government to regain its authority from the destabilising factions. Those changes go hand in hand with the reform efforts within the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC, al-Hashd al-Shaabi),[3] which constitutes an important obstacle in this domain.
  • At the intelligence level, since 7 July 2020, the Kadhimi government has made many changes to the intelligence services, including the dismissal of the Director of Military Intelligence at the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, the dismissal of the Interior Minister’s Undersecretary for Intelligence Affairs, the dismissal of the Director General of Intelligence and Combating Terrorism at the Ministry of the Interior (the Falcons Cell), and the dismissal of the Director of the Intelligence and Security Department for Baghdad Operations, as part of broader efforts to reduce the role of the factions within those sensitive agencies, after they had deeply penetrated them during the period of the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi.
  • At the political level, the Kadhimi government has worked, with varying degrees of success, on a number of measures and political steps related to the efforts to reform the Iraqi security sector, the most important of which being the following:
  1. Pushing for the transformation of the Iranian role in Iraq into a regulator of the movement of the pro-Tehran factions, and for Iran to abandon some of those factions.
  2. Attempting to create an Iraqi political consensus to condemn the missile attacks carried out by the Katyusha Cells associated with the loyalist factions, which target foreign sites, embassies and interests.
  3. Reaching understandings with the International Alliance and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to play broader roles in developing and supporting the Iraqi security apparatus.

Challenges to the reform of the security sector in Iraq

The efforts of the Kadhimi government to reform the security sector in Iraq face a number of challenges, the most important of which being the following:

  • The opposition by the loyalist factions to the measures to reform the Iraqi security sector, considering those measures as part of a US strategy to counter them.
  • Rejection by most of the Shiite political powers of any reform process that affects the security services for fear of threatening the political benefits they gained after 2003.
  • The US-Iranian tension and its negative impact on the political and security realities in Iraq, including its obstruction of many reform programmes that the Iraqi government is trying to implement.
  • Widespread corruption and manifestations of partisan infiltration within the security services, and the insufficient training and discipline of members of those services, which negatively affected their strength and independence.
  • The duplication of roles and tasks of the various intelligence agencies and security forces, and the overlapping between them.[4]
  • The withdrawal of the international coalition mission to modernise and train the official Iraqi security forces from many of the military bases in which they were located due to the continued missile attacks targeting them by the unruly armed factions.

Conclusions

The loyalist factions have recently tried to link the overall security reforms made by the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi in many security sector agencies and institutions in Iraq, and to characterise those reforms as coming within the framework of a scheme to target and strike them in the future. Despite the assertion by the Kadhimi government that those reforms come within the framework of restoring the confidence of the international community in the Iraqi security services, and strengthening those services and increasing their independence, especially that Iraq continues to face Deash (ISIS) threats and other security challenges, those reform measures may lead to a confrontation between the government and the pro-Iran factions in the future, especially that those factions are not willing to give in to the collapse of the security benefits they gained after the war on Daesh.

What is certain is that such a potential confrontation would be difficult and its results unguaranteed, given that the two sides have tools of force against each other. What makes this confrontation more complicated is that its scope may go beyond the Iraqi borders, extending to Iraq’s external security environment, especially in the light of the continued tension in US-Iranian relations, and the fact that the Iraqi interior remains a potential scene for a clash between the two countries.

References

[1] Hisham al-Hashimi, Confrontation with the hybrid factions, al-Aalem al-Jadeed website, 2 July 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3tGcYp0

[2] Michael Knights, Kadhimi’s Rolling Reshuffle (Part 2): Protecting Iraq’s Economic Institutions and Borders, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 15 Sep 2020. https://bit.ly/3f0VXSm

[3] Michael Knights and Alex Almeida, Kadhimi’s Rolling Reshuffle (Part 1): Military Command Changes, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 14 Sep 2020. https://bit.ly/3r4c5Vv

[4] Michael Knights, Pierre Morcos and Charles Thépaut, NATO in Iraq: Not a Surge, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 5 Mar 2021. https://bit.ly/3s7UKMH

 

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