The winner of the election, Shi’i populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was intent on forming a “majority government” that excluded several leaders from the Fateh Alliance and its allies. As the government formation process progressed, networks from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) escalated their show of violence, launching rocket attacks on al-Sadr’s Sunni allies in Anbar province and Kurdish allies in Erbil. Tit-for-tat attacks also mounted between PMF groups and Sadrists in southern Iraq. This violence was not necessarily aimed at killing opponents but rather at sending a message: PMF-aligned groups would not be removed from Iraqi politics.
Iraq’s year-long government formation process following the October 2021 elections marked the most significant post-election violence in the country since 2003. Al-Sadr wanted to replace the consensus-based system developed after the US-led invasion and occupation. The PMF used its display of violence to protect it. Ultimately, they successfully stifled al-Sadr’s majority government allowing all Fateh leaders to remain in power.
Having failed to form al-Sadr’s majoritarian government, the Sadrists withdrew their members from parliament. A new governing coalition emerged, and the Sadrists were now the ones left out. In response, they sent their own armed protesters to invade and occupy the Green Zone in August 2022. As the violence escalated and casualties mounted—leaving over 30 killed in less than 24 hours—they quickly withdrew their forces. They too were not looking for an armed conflict that would result in significant casualties.
This drawn-out episode of violence following the elections in 2021 reflected deeper divisions in post-2003 Iraq, where distrustful political factions have depended on private paramilitary groups to maintain their power and influence. Returning to Baghdad after decades in exile, Iraq’s new leaders in 2003—the Kurdish nationalist and Shi‘i Islamist parties—worked with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority to develop a consensus-based power sharing political system. Fearful that a strongman like former president Saddam Hussein could re-emerge from the military and distrustful of each other, the new elite refused to surrender their direct access to violence. Instead, they built a state where two sectors—government and security—operated in parallel. By design, coercive power remained in the private realms of the political parties and not exclusively in the government.
During the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the United States and its allies spent hundreds of billions of dollars attempting to integrate armed groups into the Iraqi government under a centralized command structure. Between 2003 and 2011, the US-led efforts to rebuild the country’s armed forces cost $24.49 billion. A 2009 Special Report by the United States Institute for Peace argued that so-called security sector reform was “the key to security and to establishing the legitimacy of the state.” Yet these efforts—which were promoted by a range of think tanks and international institutions—run against a founding principle of the post-2003 state: Iraq’s political elite kept their paramilitary forces separate from the government as an insurance policy. This private and direct access to violence has become an important tool to negotiate state power, especially when challenged, as occurred following the October 2021 elections. At the same time, these elites have sought to capture the government’s security apparatuses from policing to defense and intelligence. This parallel development of violence and politics is at the core of Iraq’s security paradox.
In 2003, Iraq’s new elite, wary of laying down their arms, negotiated a state in which coercive power was spread out across society and paramilitary groups allowed to flourish. The new ruling elite in Baghdad refused to give up their armed groups to the new government. Instead, they have maintained private control over arms, weakening the government security sector. Although the PMF was legally incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces by parliament in 2016 and placed under the National Security Council, its major leadership and decision makers often sat outside of these institutions. For instance, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis served as the de facto leader of the PMF but was not the official head of the PMF commission. Other PMF leaders with decision-making powers also led from outside of this formal structure.
In the Kurdistan Region, the two ruling Kurdish parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—agreed that the federal government could not provide their security. They therefore pushed for articles in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution to safeguard their political autonomy, ensuring that the Peshmerga’s chain of command would be firmly with the regional government. Article 117-122 stated that federal regions, like Kurdistan, would be responsible for “the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces and guards of the region.” In 2009, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) established a Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which sought to integrate 14 brigades from the two Kurdish parties. Like in Baghdad, however, the decision makers often sat outside the ministry and in the senior echelons of the two parties.
Capturing Government Institutions
After de-Baathification, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s second act was to disband Iraq’s military, security and intelligence apparatuses, as proclaimed on May 23, 2003 in their “Order Number 2.” The new elite installed their loyal allies across senior positions in the Ministries of the Interior, Defense and the National Security Council. The new police and security officials often catered to the interests of powerful personalities rather than the government institutions they served.
Meanwhile, as the ruling Kurdish parties built their state structure under the KRG, they also wanted to maintain private control over coercive power in the new state. As such, they too refused to integrate their Peshmerga forces into the regional government’s ministry, instead keeping them as their private forces. A 2018 Clingendael report found that the “command structure of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs’ integrated brigades remains structured according to party affiliation as each brigade is equipped with a commander from one party and a deputy from the other. In addition, the majority of Peshmerga forces has not yet been institutionalised.” A lack of trust between the two parties meant that each needed access to security forces in case tensions flared up in the future.
The Paradox of Reforming Iraq’s Security Sector
In post-2003 Iraq, US and international policymakers emphasized the establishment of the state’s monopoly over legitimate violence. They pushed to integrate the various paramilitaries into the central and Kurdistan Regional governments. But this logic contradicted the foundations of the post-2003 Iraqi state as it emerged. Iraq’s new rulers built a political system that served elite interests, not those of the Iraqi people. This system has proven resilient for 20 years. It will likely continue to muddle through, in part because the diffusion of violence ensures that bottom-up reform movements, such as the Tishreen protests of 2019, cannot easily undo the system. As such, although the disbanding of the military after 2003 and the subsequent proliferation of private armies appears to show a weak and incoherent Iraqi state, looking into the nature of violence, as designed, reveals that it has enabled the new elite to acquire and keep their seats in power.
[Renad Mansour is a senior research fellow at Chatham House.]
 Robert M. Perito, The Interior Ministry’s Role in Security Sector Reform, USIP: Special Report (May 2009), p. 16.
 Author interview with an official in Baghdad, Fall 2021.
 Feike Fliervoet, “Fighting for Kurdistan? Assessing the nature and functions of the Peshmerga in Iraq,” Clingendael Report (March 2018), p. 16.