Middle East


Decreasing Sectarianism by Recruiting Ethnic Minorities

An Iraqi soldier stands guard on al-Karrada street in central Baghdad. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP-Getty Images)

Problems with the Current Ethnic Composition of Iraqi Security Forces (I.S.F.)

The United States' objective to increase the number of Iraqi troops that are both well-trained for combat and dependable may be difficult if it continues to fill the Iraqi army with Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. Tensions and suspicions coupled with various sectarian allegiances makes the cohesion of Iraqi security forces difficult when groups are pitted against each other in combat. To a great extent, Shia and Sunni representation inside the army also serves to promote the interests of each group, even under the auspices of American forces.

An alternative to increasing Shia and Sunni representation would be to vastly increase the representation of minority groups that have weak affiliation and allegiance to either sect. Such groups include Christians, Turkomens, Shabaks, Mandaeans, Bahais, Assyrians, Jews, Armenians and Faili Kurds. These groups should be organized as both integrated multiethnic brigades and groups of single ethnic composition.

Why Recruit Minorities for the Iraqi Military?

At the moment, many minority groups in Iraq face greater security threats from more dominant Sunni and Shia groups. They experience violence from militias, insurgents, and foreign fighters. Even more, the Iraqi state provides no protection for minorities. Corruption in the Iraqi police and military, coupled with religious and ethnic violence, renders Iraqi authorities incapable of providing security for minorities. Various groups like the Shabaks currently face the possibility of genocide in Iraq. For this reason, it is possible for the United States to receive support from these groups in exchange for minority protection.

The United States must be prepared to provide special protection for these groups to persuade them into seeing that their security interests lie with American forces. Since minority groups lack militias to provide them protection, this void can be filled by recuriting more minorities to join the I.S.F. Furthermore, it is very likely that if left to their own devices such groups might eventually be severely diminished in number due to the ongoing violence, or that more militias may emerge as minority groups seek to provide for their own security.

If the United States can manage to persuade the Maliki government to provide special minority rights and state protection for such groups, their leaders may not only see their interests tied with America, but also with the Iraqi state. Moreover, the United States can bind the allegiance of minority groups to the Iraqi state as they join the ranks of the I.S.F. Integrated brigades or brigades composed solely of minority groups loyal to an Iraqi state that makes an effort to provide for their welfare would present an opportunity to substitute them for the Shia militias that influence the decisions of the Maliki government. Iraq, a nation with both a weak government and military, must gain legitimacy by restoring civil order, which is most likely to come from a national army that serves government interests. Such order can come about through the use of integrated or minority brigades.


  • Preventing majority groups from dominating the Iraqi army.

One of the greatest benefits from increasing recruitment of minority groups into the I.S.F. is that the United States can help mitigate the gravity of Iraq's civil war. Training Shia and Sunni increases the danger that the weapons provided by the United States may someday be turned against it. Furthermore, if Shia continue to dominate the ethnic composition of the Iraqi army, animosity between both groups may persist into the future. For this reason, integrated brigades or minority brigades may provide a balancing force between Sunnis and Shia in the country by decreasing the propensity for sectarian violence.

  • Minority troops are more likely to be loyal to the United States and the Iraqi state.

Minority groups are less likely to sympathize with militias since these are the same groups that commit acts of violence against their communities. Since minorities are caught between the violence of Sunnis, Shia, and foreign fighters, it is not very likely that they would serve the interests of ethnic militia groups.


  • Sunnis and Shia may feel alienated by the presence of minority troops in their communities and clash.

Although Iraqis in predominately Sunni and Shia areas may feel uncomfortable with the presence of minority troops in their communities, neither group would feel the same amount of hostility they have towards each other. Sunnis would not have to feel insecure about Shia troops lashing out against their communities, or the possibility of sectarian infiltration of minority Iraqi troop ranks. Over time, minority troops would gain respect and enhance the legitimacy of the Iraqi state as they serve the state and steer away from sectarianism.

  • The United States may be unable to provide minority groups protection or guarantee certain rights.

The United States can begin by helping minorities provide for their own security by recruiting volunteers to serve as civilian police while recruits are gathered to serve in the I.S.F. The Iraqi government at first may be pressured to deny minority communities rights or state protection. However, as minorities continue to join the I.S.F. the Iraqi government could ultimately have an army composed of ethnic minority or ethnically integrated brigades loyal to the government that can usurp the security role of the militias.

Policy Guidance on How Ethnic Minorities Can Improve National Security in Multiethnic States Based on the Indian model

Ethnic minorities have been used by various countries to maintain civil order. The example of India illustrates the role they can serve in the military. Through this model, the United States can learn how to likewise effectively utilize ethnic minorities in Iraq.

1. Minority populations can be used by national governments to maintain order and defense.

Although India is an exceptional case, the army presents an example of how minority groups can uphold the strength and numbers of a national army. In India, Sikhs constitute about 15 to 20 percent of the army, though only about 2 percent of the general population. Although they were first used by British colonists, they helped India win important battles such as the wars against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. 

2. Maintaining order may sometimes require pitting one ethnic group against another.

Strategies that India has adopted to maintain civil order involve scenarios in which an army of a particular ethnic group is pitted against another group. Sikh infantry units fought against Nage and Mizo guerillas in the 1960's and 1970's.

3. The use of integrated armies of various ethnic groups works best in areas where homogenous groups engage in violence.

When the Sikh rebellion arose in the 1980's, authorities had problems with deploying Sikh regiments into military operations. In order to overcome this problem, Indian commanders utilized an integrated brigade to reduce unit inactivity that surfaced out of sympathy for the Sikh population. A Sikh Lt. General ordered the brigade into action under the leadership of a Muslim Lt. Col. The brigade, known as the "Guards Elite Strike Force," also included Sikh soldiers and defeated the rebels holding the Golden Temple in June 1984.

4. Regiments of minorities should be a mixture of both homogenous units and integrated units.

Indian units of Sikhs comprised homogenous units and were placed into integrated formations. When fighting groups of homogenous Sikh composition, Indian authorities were most likely to deploy integrated brigades even though civil disorder was coming from ethnic groups other than Sikh. These units tended to have good morale in battle and made units more efficient in combat.

5. Take caution not to elevate too many minority officers to top military commands.

In India, the absence of Sikhs in top military posts is due to the disproportionate number of Sikh troops from Punjab. This is done intentionally to prevent a concentration of individuals from one particular ethnic group.

6. The military must be a means of social mobility and opportunity.

Many ethnic groups, like the Sikhs, join the military in hopes of securing economic benefits, social status and educational opportunities. Other groups, such as the Mahars, have also achieved social mobility by joining the armed forces.