National Guard Law Would Help Iraq Regain Sunni Trust

Programme Administrator, Middle East and North Africa Programme...The proposed legislation represents an important tangible measure that could help rebuild the confidence of Sunni communities in Iraq’s political process, not only in the campaign against ISIS, but also in Iraq’s future. Iraqi Shia fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units guard a position on 15 July 2015 on the northern outskirts of the city of Fallujah. Photo by Getty Images.Iraqi Shia fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units guard a position on 15 July 2015 on the northern outskirts of the city of Fallujah. Photo by Getty Images. Last week Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi successfully passed reforms to improve efficiency, tackle corruption and improve state services in response to widespread protest across the country. These are a step in the right direction, but further reforms to address the fault lines in Iraq’s political system, such as a proposed National Guard Law (NGL), are needed.

Proposed law
Following the formation of the new Iraqi government in September 2014, Abadi, the new prime minister, proposed the creation of a National Guard that would not only help in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also include Iraq’s Sunni communities in the country’s security framework. The intention is for pro-government Sunni tribes as well as Shia militias to eventually be included in the formation of guard for each province. The initial guard in the provinces with large Sunni populations would form an important part of the fight against ISIS, as well as a leading role establishing and maintaining security in the areas afterwards.

Despite initial optimism from policy-makers, the momentum behind the NGL has been severely slowed by delays and disagreement from Shia and Kurdish factions in government. One Kurdish politician warned that as well as being unconstitutional, the guard could pose a long-term risk to the country as its forces could be used in future conflicts between provinces, while other political actors, such as Hadi Al-Ameri, have argued that the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) are a sufficient alternative in the fight against ISIS.

Promoting inclusiveness

Many Sunnis hold deep reservations about the existing leadership of the PMUs. Highly influential figures such as Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri are well-known for their connections with Iran and IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, which is a source of great distrust amongst the Sunni communities. There are also several Shia militia groups that are now part of the PMUs who have previously been accused of committing sectarian crimes against Sunnis. As a result of all of this, many Sunnis simply do not trust the PMUs to offer security and protection, either in the fight against ISIS or in a post-ISIS setting.

For the Sunnis, the National Guard is seen as an essential measure in defeating ISIS and fostering confidence in the representation and authority of their MPs in government. Iraq’s most senior Sunni politician, Saleem al-Jibori, recently reiterated the importance of the NGL, as an important step to help reverse the policy of exclusion which existed under Nouri al-Maliki. It would also serve to empower local forces to defend their respective villages, towns and cities – a criticism which Sunni locals have consistently levelled at the army and police over the years.

Though Abadi’s recent pledges for reform represent a positive step, the fight against ISIS remains the obvious short-term priority. Therefore, as part of the announced forthcoming reforms, much consideration should be given to establishing a framework that both combats ISIS and lays the foundation for stability for a post-ISIS region of the country.

The continued postponement of the NGL not only undermines efforts for national reconciliation, it also hurts the credibility of Sunni politicians in the eyes of their constituents as the initiative increasingly becomes viewed as a failure. If a long-term and sustainable solution is to be established, restoring confidence in political representatives and inclusive institutions must be an utmost priority.