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Thinking About the History of Militias in Iraq

Michael Brill explores the history of Iraqi militias and their role in the Iraq War.

When I read early accounts of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, such as Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, and Generation Kill by Evan Wright, I remember being struck by a particular aspect of the war’s early phase that was shared among their respective accounts. The Iraqi forces that put up the fiercest resistance in defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime in southern and central Iraq were not the Republican Guard nor Special Republican Guard, as had widely been expected by analysts, but rather a regime militia known as the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam (“Those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for Saddam”).[1]

Following the invasion and occupation of Iraq, retrospective studies of the war made note of the same phenomenon. The Iraqi Perspectives Report, commissioned by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, observed that “while local Baʿth leaders dithered, fought among themselves, and then finally ran off, thousands of [Fidaʿiyyu] Saddam continued to sacrifice themselves to maintain the regime.”[2]

Notably, the militiamen employed suicidal tactics, charging American tanks in small groups or in pick-up trucks. They also threw into battle scores of foreign volunteers, most of whom had traveled to Iraq by way of Syria, answering the Baʿth regime’s call to “jihad” as the invasion loomed.

The Fidaʿiyyu Saddam’s role in recruiting foreign fighters made it of additional interest for official studies following the 2003 war, which found the militia to be a crucial instrument for the Baʿth regime’s state-sponsored terrorist activities at home and abroad.

Militias have featured prominently in political unrest and armed conflicts in the Middle East and much of the developing world in recent decades.[3] A glance at the headlines for such countries as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen indicates that the devolution of violence away from the armed forces of central governments, either by design or unintended consequence from the breakdown of governance, has become a fact of life in much of the region.

In terms of the unintended consequences stemming from the devolution of violence, perhaps there is no greater recent historical example than Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. On the other hand, the willed devolution of violence to militias has proven to be an effective and sometimes risky strategy of authoritarian survival in conflicts in places such as Syria and Sudan. It at the same time serves as a relatively inexpensive tactic for a state like Iran, which has employed militias to repress unrest domestically, while cultivating relationships with militias abroad as an effective means of wielding influence. For more than 17 years, Iraq has been in a bind where efforts to reconstitute the power of the central government have been hampered by domestic militias in coordination with Iran. At present, these actors are working to undermine the reform agenda of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

While researching and writing my Master’s Thesis at Georgetown University,[4] under the direction of my adviser Professor Joseph Sassoon,[5] I decided to learn more about the historical antecedents to the current situation in Iraq, where militias and political parties connected to them have assumed dominant roles in economic, political, and security affairs since 2003.

I was broadly interested in the shifting role of regime militias under Baʿth Party rule in Iraq between 1968 and 2003, but focused particularly on the period between the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars. The Baʿth Regional Command Collection (BRCC), part of the Iraq Memory Foundation’s digitized collections available to researchers at the Hoover Institution, was a useful resource for my research. It contains digitized copies of records pertaining to both the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam and Jaysh al-Quds (“Jerusalem Army”), the two principal militias established by Saddam’s regime during the final decade of its rule in Iraq.

The Baʿth Party records in the BRCC dealing with the recruitment, administration, and training of both militias were complementary to the relevant digitized Saddam Hussein Regime Collection of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which generally focused on militia activities and operations. These latter sources were available to researchers at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. until June 2015, when the center closed due to a lack of funding. Although the project has been dormant for the past five years, it awaits transfer to a suitable research institution. An ideal destination would be the Wilson Center, which previously hosted events in conjuncture with the CRRC and offers to researchers a growing collection of CRRC documents related to the Iran-Iraq War.

Assessed together, both the BRCC and CRRC collections offer the most complete documentary picture possible from the perspective of studying the institutions of Saddam’s regime. Occasionally, they even allow the researcher to match up correspondences that originated from bodies now falling within the two respective archives, a division stemming from the documents seized by the U.S. military compared to those secured by the activists of the Iraq Memory Foundation in the early days and weeks following the invasion in 2003.

As I found, this ability to connect the regime’s paper trail is important, as information gathered by the party or security services was not always included in the more succinct higher-level correspondences between agencies.  An illustrative example of this is a CRRC record containing a petition. In the record, the Presidential Diwan received a petition from the widow of a Fidaʿiyyu Saddam member said to have been killed during an operation in Sulaymaniyah in July 2000. The widow requested that she be granted a meeting with Saddam to ascertain the circumstances of her husband’s death and explain the material needs of her family. In their report, the Iraqi Intelligence Service notes that they suspected the woman’s late husband of collaborating with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and that he had been arrested and suspended from their service on July 4, 2000. Shortly after being sent back to the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam Secretariat, they reported his death in a “martyrdom operation” later that month. The CRRC record shows where the paper trail ends at the level of the Presidential Diwan and subsequent investigation,[6] although the corresponding BRCC record allows the researcher to see it from the beginning several months earlier as the petition worked its way up the party apparatus to the secretariat, before being transferred to the Presidential Diwan.[7] The restriction of the CRRC records to researchers has precluded this kind of cross-referencing for the time being, although the transfer of the archive to the Wilson Center or the Hoover Institution would be convenient, especially given the proximity of the latter’s Washington D.C. office to the former.

 

In addition to the BRCC, the Iraqi Baʿth Party Records at Hoover include a collection titled “Video documents from the Baʿth Regime Era.” The collection contains footage of both the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam and Jerusalem Army in parades and training exercises. For the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam in particular, the collection contains footage of Saddam’s son Uday Hussein awarding medals as the “Supervisor” in charge of the militia. This resource also includes footage of atrocities committed by the militia, such as amputations and the beheading of individuals accused of crimes such as theft and smuggling, both of which increased in 1990s Iraq that was under sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The CRRC records in turn provide written documentation of these activities and atrocities.

Over the course of my research, I found that the study of regime militias generally corresponds with the fall and rise of Saddam’s Baʿth Party between the 1991 and 2003 wars. The growing field of scholarship based on the regime’s internal records has made it clearer the ways in which the Baʿth rebuilt and expanded the party, both numerically and in the scope of its reach into the lives of ordinary Iraqis.[8]

In the wake of the 1991 defeat and domestic uprising that included many defecting soldiers from the Iraqi Army, militias offered an alternative to the conventional military that was also relatively inexpensive. As the Baʿth Party rebuilt its branches and expanded its ranks over the course of the 1990s thanks to increasing revenues, militias followed at a similar pace, starting with the creation of the smaller Fidaʿiyyu Saddam in 1995 and culminating with the much larger Jerusalem Army in 2001. Although ineffective as a fighting force against a conventional military in 2003, these militias were useful for mobilizing society, expanding the regime’s patronage networks, and maintaining security at the provincial level, in keeping with Saddam’s primary fear of another domestic uprising against his rule similar to 1991.[9]

In the case of Saddam’s regime, the devolution of violence away from the conventional military to militias was an effective strategy that helped it stay in power between the two Gulf wars. As paradoxical as it may have seemed that militiamen put up the stiffest resistance in defense of the regime against foreign invasion in 2003, it makes sense in the context of the regime’s security priorities in the dozen or so years after the 1991 War.

As besieged and isolated Saddam was internationally, militias were an important piece of the institutional apparatus that allowed him and the Baʿth to maintain their hold on the people and territory under their control until the very end.

 


[1] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 70-71, 346-347, 350, Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 117, Evan Wright, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2008), 96-97, 249. In the case of the last work, the stiff resistance U.S. Marines encountered from the Fidaʿiyyu Saddam is depicted in the mini-series of the same title produced by HBO.

[2] Kevin M. Woods, Michael R. Pease, Mark E. Stout, Williamson Murray, and James G. Lacey, The Iraqi Perspectives Report: Saddam’s Senior Leadership on Operation Iraqi Freedom from the Official U.S. Joint Forces Command Report (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 136.

[3] For a useful work that uses Indonesia, Iran, and Iraq as case studies, see Ariel I. Ahram, Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State-Sponsored Militias (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011).

[4] Michael P. Brill, “’Allah, al-watan, al-qa’id: A preliminary study of regime militias in Iraq, 1991-2003,” (M.A. Thesis: Georgetown University, 2016).

[5] He is the author of the authoritative first book on Saddam’s regime based on its internal records. In it he details the party and regime’s numerous security services and paramilitary formations. See Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Baʿth Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 145-152.

 

[6] CRRC, SH-IISX-D-000-470, “Correspondence Regarding the Request from the Wife of a Fedayeen Saddam Martyr to Meet Saddam Hussein,” June 3-6, 2001.

[7] The file runs BRCC, 037_1_3_0035-0045, beginning with “Request,” October 2, 2000.

[8] Lisa Blaydes, “Rebuilding the Baʿthist State: Party, Tribe and Administrative Control in Authoritarian Iraq, 1991-1996” Comparative Politics, 53:1 (October 2020), 1-23., Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Baʿth Party, 5, 45-46, Dina Rizk Khoury, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 171-180, Aaron M. Faust, The Baʿthification of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015), 81-86, 189-191, and Samuel Helfont, Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 132-136.

[9] These roles for militias have been detailed in recent scholarship based on the regime records. In particular, see “Chapter 10: Military Service, Militias, and Coup Attempts” in Lisa Blaydes, State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018), 266-304.

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Michael Brill

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The History and Public Policy Program strives to make public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, to facilitate scholarship based on those records, and to use these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more