Iraq's Road to Counterinsurgency

As we know, these local truces and arrangements in most cases collapsed, or were dismantled after 2011, and in some cases before then. Almost a decade after the Haditha massacre, in November 2014, an eerily similar incident took place in Iraq. In Diyala, an area with a bloody sectarian past that was once home to numerous ISI strongholds, Shi’a paramilitaries associated with the Ministry of Interior were passing through a town and were hit by an IED.

As in Haditha, revenge was spontaneous and indiscriminate: the militias went into the local Imam Weiss Mosque, and shot dead 34 civilians. This was confirmed by Ministry of Interior spokesman Saad Maan, who described the motive for the attack:

“We heard that some of their relatives (of the men killed by the IED) two or three, went to that mosque carrying AKs and opened fired on the mosque, killing them all, which was a normal, spontaneous reaction of revenge. It was a revenge operation for what they lost.”

If such a response is shocking, consider that the initial US statement on the Haditha massacre strongly resembled a cover up attempt (no civilian casualties were mentioned) and although some of the Marines have been charged, sentences are light.

Similarly, Iraqi politicians, including former Interior Minister Hadi al Ameri, regularly pledge to investigate war crimes, but it is unclear if anyone has been caught or punished. In fact, Hadi al Ameri was recently very candid on the matter. In an interview where he also chastised the US for limited help, he noted that civilian casualties were,

“part of war ... as America knows when it invaded Iraq and killed many civilians."

In the same interview, this leading figure of the Popular Mobilization Force paramilitaries stressed that the US was not, and had never had been, an enemy.

Supporting the troops

This failure to investigate or punish war criminals is perhaps not surprising as conflict rages. It was not so long ago that William Calley, a man many hold directly responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, was released after serving 4 years under house arrest, a presidential pardon contested by the then secretary of defence.

If punishing those accused of war crimes during times of war is difficult, equally important is the intent of the commanders to uphold human rights, protect civilians, and the ability of these leaders to instill such values in their subordinate commanders, and men in the field.

In Iraq, the US Marines and then the wider US army eventually adopted tactics that focused on “protecting the population” rather than solely targeting the enemy. This was only after a failed period of “enemy centric” counterinsurgency, which saw frequent use of heavy artillery in Diyala (See Ricks, Fiasco) and the highly destructive second battle of Fallujah. Today, clerics accompany Hashd al Shabi members into battle and exhort them to respect Sunni civilians. Following accusations of PMU looting in Tikrit, one cleric was quoted in Reuters, telling his men,

"Let us not taint ourselves for something of no value. Today we are an ideological army. I am not doubting you. You are honest, and above doing this. But I am reminding you just in case."

46 Responses to Iraq's Road to Counterinsurgency

  1. Nicasso 6th July 2015 at 07:45 #

    Hi Robert,

    A useful article - good stuff. Muqtada al-Sadr will be minor player in any dialogue with the Hashd al-Shabi. His 'Peace Brigades' are not in the same league as Badr, AAH or Kaitab Hezbollah. Lots of rhetoric but the capability is not there as it was 2004-2008. Another problem will be convincing rank and file Hashd al-Shabi that the US is their ally. The amount of suspicion of US intentions is palpable in southern Iraq. It's quite common to hear ordinary Shi'a Iraqis talking of the US arming ISIS, even though elements of the Hashd are reportedly living side by side with US forces in Anbar. I believe closer co-operation is required but it will need high level agreement between US and Iranian officials....yes Iranian not Iraqi.