U.S.-backed Plan for Iraqi National Guard Unraveling

BAGHDAD—A U.S.-backed plan to bring Iraq’s fractured sectarian tribal forces fighting Islamic State under the supervision of the central government is in danger of being abandoned, lawmakers said.

Momentum has swung against the proposal to create a national guard that would encompass local forces in Iraq’s provinces as rival political blocs expressed reservations over who will be allowed into the new service and how funding will be spread out.

The Obama administration has pushed the national guard proposal as a way to bring minority Sunnis closer to the Shiite-dominated central government after years of policies espoused by former Prime Minister Iraqi Nouri al-Maliki that excluded them.

But lawmakers, tribal leaders and government officials say the divisions are so deep, it is unlikely the plan will be implemented in the near future, if at all. The idea has failed to take root even though there is no indication that existing military and police agencies have been able to beat back the blitz by extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hasn’t taken urgent action on the matter, with his office saying the plan is “still being studied.” That represents a significant retreat from earlier statements that the national guard formation is a cornerstone of the government’s effort to fight back after the military was humiliated by Islamic State’s offensive.

“The idea of the national guard is far away from being implemented because of the current security situation,” said Ghassan al-Husseini, an adviser to the prime minister. “It is a time bomb if it gets misused.”

Each of Iraq’s rival sects has expressed reservations about the plan. All say it could accelerate the fragmentation of the nation by arming groups with little interest in joining a unified political structure while each jockeys for influence over the composition of the force and how it is funded. After drafts of the legal framework were leaked to local media this week, the tepid support turned to outright opposition with calls from lawmakers and tribal leaders to drop the plan and focus instead on rebuilding the army.

WO-AU117_IRAQGU_G_20141016211916Shiite men show their technique during a ceremony after finishing training in Karbala in southern Iraq. European Pressphoto Agency

“We can discuss this for months, but it is not going to pass because there is no real way to implement it,” said a Shiite parliamentarian from Mr. Abadi’s political bloc. “There is no time to try to make everyone happy when the nation is under attack.”

While on a visit to Baghdad this, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Anthony Blinken said the Iraqi government was still “working very hard” on the plan with American assistance. U.S. officials didn’t comment on any difficulties the proposal might be facing.

Lawmakers who have been present for closed-door discussions of the law to create the national guard said no side is ready to compromise to give the proposal traction.

“There is no consensus over the national guard law,” said Abdul Bari Zibari, a Kurdish lawmaker in parliament. “The national guard force won’t see the light at all. No hope.”

The idea is to form paramilitary units in Iraq’s mostly segregated provinces made up of the sectarian groups that dominate the region. In effect, the plan would deputize existing militias and bring them under government supervision with either the ministry of defense or the interior arming and funding them.

But early drafts of the plan have proposed allowing only Sunni militias to be brought into the national guard, while exempting them of constitutionally enshrined laws that prevent loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein to enter politics or military service.

Some Shiite forces have argued that they deserve to be represented in the force, after their militias have proved to be among the most effective fighters in staving off Islamic State threat to certain regions.

Yet others, especially those with strong militias, fear creating a force that brings in irregular fighters under the government’s control would eliminate their influence. Two Shiite lawmakers said Iraq’s powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Badr Corps and Mahdi Army, have lobbied hard against the plan.

Sunnis themselves have criticized the plan as a distraction from rebuilding Iraq’s debilitated military, which they hope to take a larger role in after being largely sidelined for nearly a decade.

Sunnis accuse the Shiite militias of abuses in past sectarian conflicts and fear that giving those militias any legal legitimacy would empower them to take over more territory in mixed areas. Tribal leaders in heavily Sunni provinces have said they would welcome financial support of their armed men but don’t want to be brought under government supervision.

“Forming a new armed force would pull the carpet from under their feet,” Mithal al-Aloussi, a liberal Sunni parliamentarian, said of the irregular fighters, who enjoy influence in their regions. “There would be no reason for the militias to exist anymore.”

Further complicating the project’s prospects are fresh calls from Iraq’s smaller sects, such as Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen, to be included in the plan after they bore the early brunt of Islamic State’s march. The demand has fueled fears that this will lead to aggressive separatist movements.

Kurds have used the discussion of the proposal to lobby for concessions that would strengthen them after their political clout was bolstered by the relative success of their fighting force, known as the Peshmerga, against Islamic State.

According to two senior Kurdish officials, they are hoping to tie discussion of the legislation to ensuring that the Peshmerga receives a separate funding stream to match or outpace the national guard while avoiding at all costs being brought into the infrastructure of the new force.

The officials said payments to the Peshmerga, which come from federal revenue streams in Baghdad, haven’t been received this calendar year.

The significant opposition, in addition to Mr. Abadi’s inability so far to pass his nominations for the critical posts of interior and defense minister, has strengthened calls for the national guard plan to be abandoned in favor of an effort to reform the military to remove the political bias that elevated Shiites.

“In the end, the focus on the national guards proposal will turn to the Iraqi military itself,” said Mr. Zibari, the Kurdish lawmaker. “There should be a strong Iraqi army rather than a national guard.”