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In Iraq, could a national guard do what its army couldn’t?

A member of an Iraqi volunteer forces group joins training near the Imam Ali shrine in the southern holy Shiite city of Najaf, Iraq
A member of an Iraqi volunteer forces group joins training near the Imam Ali shrine in the southern holy Shiite city of Najaf, Iraq AP

It will take months, if not years for the United States, Iraq and allies to defeat the Islamic State extremists who have conquered over one third of Iraq and as much again of Syria, but even if they do, a long-term security vacuum will remain due to the collapse of most of the Iraqi army.

The incompetence and corruption of the Shiite-dominated security forces in the 33 months since U.S. troops departed so embittered Sunni Arabs and Kurds that even if it were to be retrained and reconstituted, they don’t want it back.

So the talk is of setting up “national guard” units in each of Iraq’s 18 Provinces, answering to the elected governors but integrated into federal defenses.

Revival of the Sunni Sahwa tribal militias, which helped defeat an al Qaida uprising in 2007-2008, together with the Kurdish peshmerga militias, is widely viewed to be essential to defeating the Islamic State, the al Qaida spinoff, in the Sunni and Kurdish areas.

But that raises a question: Is the creation of a national guard structure a formula for future stability? Or is it a recipe for a partition of Iraq along the lines of its sectarian and ethnic cleavages?

“This is pushing towards de facto partition,” said Kenneth Pollack, a respected expert on military affairs at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, of the national guards. “The future of Iraq is unlikely to be a strong central government any more. Unfortunately, (former Prime Minister Nouri al) Maliki broke that model.” He said the only hope for Iraq to remain united is that “for some period of time it’s going to have to be a much looser framework, even among the (Sunni and Shiite) Arabs.”

The problem with a partition, U.S. diplomats say, is that no one knows how it can possibly come about without bloodshed, enormous population shifts and possibly civil war.

Kurds and Sunnis are completely on board with the plan for provincial national guards, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry endorsed “this very important initiative,” pledging assistance and technical advice.

Kerry also said Iraq’s new prime minster, Haider al Abadi, was “very focused” on the national guard and had made it a top priority for his cabinet.

“Locally rooted security structures that are directly integrated into Iraqi security forces” will protect the population of Iraqi cities and town and “deny space” to the Islamic State, he said on his unannounced visit here Wednesday. “As it does that, it is going to be the key to guaranteeing” Iraq’s territorial integrity, he said.

James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said that after the eight years of Maliki’s increasingly sectarian government, there’s no alternative to granting more autonomy to the provinces in security and finances.

The idea for an Iraqi-style national guard grows out of the Kurdish peshmerga, the Sons of Iraq _ the Sunni Sahwa _ and the national police. The only active and effective formation today is the peshmerga, although it proved unable to defend Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, until the United States mounted airstrikes against the Islamic State.

Peshmerga-like forces would be established in the other provinces and funded from the central government, with the requirement that they be subject to activation into the regular army in an emergency. While Kurds are reluctant to commit the peshmerga except in territories under control or claimed by Kurds, the force took part in the battle to wrest control of Sadr City, a Shiite-dominated part of Baghdad, from the Sadrist militias in 2008, he said.

“So you can nationalize them under certain circumstances,” he said.

Kurdish leaders see no alternative to decentralized defenses.

“Iraq cannot function as a state if we don’t go back to a federal structure,” Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, said in an interview in Irbil. “We must have decentralized authority, decentralized administration, a decentralized economy and decentralized security.” The easiest part, he said, in a clear reference to the Kurdish peshmerga, was “for each part to build its own security or local army.”

Shiites, still smarting over the abuses they suffered under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and Sunnis, furious about Maliki’s discriminatory policies, are not going to live together for the next 10 to 20 years, he said.

“So it’s better to have a big house and separate rooms. You have a yard, and they can meet there.” He added: “If all these people are in one room, they will kill each other.”

Barham Salih, former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, called Iraq a “tragic failure, sustained by high oil prices, a bewildering insensitivity to the loss of human lives, and nowadays by an international community that is bent on preventing doomsday emanating from the total, utter failure of the state.”

With three distinct communities, it was better “to devote national resources to national guards” than to a single national army.

The attitude among Sunnis is that “we will not accept the Iraqi army back in the Sunni provinces,” Pollack said. “Even if Iraqis can agree on new political structure and a unified government, the Iraqi army as it existed will no longer exist.”

Ayyad al Asamari, a Sunni lawmaker and former parliamentary speaker, put it in down-to-earth terms. “Our experience is that peace and security will come to the provinces from our sons,” he said.

“We found that discipline is weak in the Iraqi army. Its officers and soldiers don’t have the will to fight,” he said. But when Sunnis formed the Sahwas, although they were few in number, they brought about a great victory against al Qaida and did something the Americans couldn’t.” This was because the people of the region or province “know the area they live in. And if they fight, they’ve got a spirit that outsiders do not.”

There are big questions ahead, among them how the provincial guards are to be financed – because the country’s oil resources, its main revenue source, is concentrated in the Shiite and Kurdish areas, and the Sunnis control only one major resource, water. But one thing is clear, according to Pollack. The training and equipping of the future national guards will be done by the United States, which will retain a presence in Iraq for years to come.

The only long-term solution to the problem of the security vacuum in Iraq “is us,” said Pollack. “It’s the only way you deal with the fear, the mistrust and the horrible stuff that came with the security vacuum” when the United States departed Iraq at the end of 2011, is a third-party peacekeeping force. “That’s what we did in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that’s what we were doing in Iraq until 2011.”

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