Iraq: Building a New Security Structure
Iraq: Building a New Security Structure
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 20 / Middle East & North Africa

Iraq: Building a New Security Structure

For the foreseeable future, Iraq’s security will be in the hands of Coalition forces. As a result, how the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chose to deal with the country’s former military and how it is now going about starting up a new army may not have immediate security implications.

Executive Summary

For the foreseeable future, Iraq’s security will be in the hands of Coalition forces. As a result, how the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) chose to deal with the country’s former military and how it is now going about starting up a new army may not have immediate security implications. But both courses have decisive political implications, and both appear, at a minimum, to have been poorly thought out and recklessly implemented. They heighten the risk that the Sunni population will be further alienated, that the military will be perceived as a prolongation of, rather than a substitute for, the occupation and that, far from helping to forge a new collective national identity, it will become an arena for renewed internal political, sectarian and ethnic conflict. A significant course correction is required in order to lay the foundations for a stable, and stabilising, indigenous security structure.

Disbanding the former army was almost certainly the most controversial and arguably the most ill-advised  CPA decision. The 23 May 2003 decree, one of the first promulgated by the new civil administrator, Paul Bremer, in one fell swoop reversed prior U.S. policy and put an end to an institution whose origins predated Saddam Hussein’s rule, whose identity was distinct from that of his Baathist regime, and which has been intimately linked to the history of the Iraqi nation-state since the 1920s.

The decision caused an immediate backlash. The humiliating treatment meted out to former soldiers and the absence of a plan to get them back to work on reconstruction and humanitarian tasks alienated a significant part of the population. It was the more infuriating since the Coalition was recruiting from the security and intelligence services, which were far more loyal to the Baathist regime and far more implicated in its repression. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers, most of whom had displayed no loyalty to the regime and many of whom were too young to have participated in the atrocities in which the army had played a part, found themselves without pay, future and honour. Coupled with the sweeping de-Baathification decree, the order further alienated Sunnis, who were disproportionately represented at senior levels in both party and army.

Iraqis interviewed by ICG typically did not consider the army an extension of the regime; at a critical time, it distanced itself from Saddam Hussein and, rather than fight, deserted its positions, abandoning weapons and letting the regime’s elite units and party militias engage the invading forces. The CPA’s decision to undo this last remaining symbol of sovereignty and national unity contributed to the perception that the liberators were in fact occupiers.

Political pressure in Iraq coupled with mounting security problems subsequently led the CPA to modify its approach. It agreed to pay former soldiers and facilitate their return to civilian life. As part of an effort to “Iraqify” the political and military processes, it sped up formation of the New Iraqi Army (NIA). Concurrently, it set up a myriad of security forces, relying in part on politically-affiliated militias.

At times, these steps have had a haphazard quality. NIA soldiers have been underpaid and poorly treated, leading up to half the first battalion to resign. The command has been exclusively and visibly American, without even an Iraqi defence ministry for political oversight, undermining the notion that a legitimate Iraqi institution is being established. Instruction has been curtailed, raising questions about troop quality. Candidates for the security forces were recommended by Iraqi intermediaries (political parties, tribal chiefs, provincial governors and notables) only too content to promote their allies. The latest idea – to draw on armed militias from political parties – raises alarms among many Iraqis (and within the CPA), who fear privatisation, atomisation and politicisation of the security institutions.

The CPA points out that these are transitional measures, dictated by immediate demands, and which a sovereign Iraqi government can build upon or discard. The increased presence of Iraqi forces on the streets has indeed enhanced people’s sense of safety. However, these temporary measures are liable to have long-lasting and negative political effect.

A military viewed as neither credible nor national and that is poorly trained, divided along ethnic and sectarian lines and in which politicised militias play a part is not the ideal foundation upon which to construct a stable, legitimate political system. The CPA’s relatively cavalier approach to the old and new armies and the security structure as a whole sends the wrong message as to how seriously it regards the transfer of sovereignty. Rather than a vehicle for national unity, the emerging army is becoming an instrument of political feuding that Sunnis view as a symbol of their disenfranchisement and others seek to shape in their favour.

Notwithstanding repeated calls from Iraqis, genuine security responsibility is not about to be transferred to them; “Iraqification” will be a long and gradual enterprise. The security challenges are still too daunting; with the political struggle intense and uncertain, the risks of political or sectarian manipulation are too great.

It is critical, therefore, that decisions the CPA takes regarding Iraq’s security structure reflect long-term planning, not short-term expediency, so that the foundations can be laid for a more legitimate, professional and Iraqi-led military. Indeed, there are encouraging signs that the CPA is responding constructively to criticism and is reconsidering some of its earlier decisions. It and the Interim Governing Council need to shift course and embark on a series of measures that meet the following requirements:

  • turning over decision-making and command of the future military to Iraqis;
     
  • taking the building of a military seriously, not as a political gimmick, and protecting it from political and sectarian influences; and
     
  • including all Iraqis – Sunnis and former Baathists in particular – who have not engaged in crimes or human rights violations.

Baghdad/Brussels, 23 December 2003 

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