Iraq: A land riven by fighting and laced with militias

Millions of Iraqis have grown used to living under the control of armed groups in an ever-changing map of divisions and militants

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Nujaba armed group march during a military parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day in Baghdad, on May 31, 2019.
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Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Nujaba armed group march during a military parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day in Baghdad, on May 31, 2019.

Iraq: A land riven by fighting and laced with militias

In November 2017, armed groups under the direct supervision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani converged on Al-Qaim and Al-Bukamel, two border towns between Iraq and Syria. They had been making their way through the deserts for two months, on their way to defeating the Islamic State in the region.

In July of that year, IS had carried out a triple suicide attack on a Shiite shrine in Balad, north of Baghdad, killing 35 and wounding 60. In September and October, it had launched at least three chemical attacks on the Iraqi town of Qayyarah, south of Mosul.

The armed groups’ arrival marked a significant moment in a region plagued by bloody wars since 2003, when the Iraqi regime was toppled. As they pushed thousands of fighters east of the Euphrates River, controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, chaos ensued.

The rise of militias

Militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan have been fighting alongside Iraqi and Syrian army forces for years, under the indirect cover of the US-led international coalition forces in Iraq and under the direct cover of Russian air power and artillery in Syria.

Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) advance towards the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border as they fight against remnant pockets of Islamic State group.

These militias have established a permanent presence in the strategic land corridor south of the official border crossing, connecting Tehran and Beirut through Baghdad and Damascus. They enjoy extensive immunity, big budgets, and direct links with Iran. They have become crucial to Iraq and Syria's security establishment.

Militias stretch over a land corridor connecting Tehran, Beirut, and Damascus. They enjoy immunity, big budgets, and direct links to Iran

Paradoxically, this border crossing is surrounded by three major US bases: the al-Omar oil field east of the Euphrates, Ain al-Assad in Anbar, and al-Tanf on the Syria-Iraq-Jordan border, in addition to a US intelligence base at the Syria-Jordan border in the Rukban area.

Over the past few years, these militias have been targeted by US air strikes in response to their attacks on US bases, although many believe that the air strikes were actually carried out by Israeli forces targeting weapons shipments to its northern border.

Militias are present not only in the sensitive border area in Anbar, but over several Sunni provinces of Iraq. Shockingly, this has become the new geopolitical reality.

The region's new reality

The militias' seemingly infinite presence is a consequence of the "great adventure" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took advantage of Sunnis' resentment against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to establish the so-called "caliphate state" in 2014.

This "adventure" resulted in an enormous conflict and catastrophe for many, particularly, the Sunnis, who are now paying the highest of prices. Shiites, who no longer trust the official security establishment, have come to rely on militias for protection.

Further back, the US-British invasion of Iraq ten years earlier sowed the seeds of discontent, especially the decisions taken by Paul Bremer, the top US civil administrator for Iraq from 2003-04, early in the war. He, along with Shiite leaders, held Sunnis responsible for backing Saddam's regime. This collective blame only fueled extremism.

By 2008, coalition forces had put an end to sectarian fighting between Shiites and Sunnis and also largely defeated al-Qaeda. They did this with the help of Sunni clans.

The clans had signed up to what were known as Sahwas (Awakening) councils in return for material rewards and promises that punitive actions against them by the government of Nouri al-Maliki (who was known as the "Saddam of the Shiites") would end. But the situation in Sunni cities did not improve.

An exit that left a vacuum

Tensions between the two sides returned after the Americans left 2011, prompting an open sit-in against the al-Maliki government near Fallujah. 

Iraqi forces hold a position on November 4, 2017 near the Syrian border after recapturing the border town of Qaim, west of Anbar, from the Islamic State (IS) group jihadists a day earlier.

Dulaim tribe leader Ali Hatim Suleiman, who took part in the sit-in, called it a "legitimate peaceful uprising" to represent Sunni regions, which comprise more than half of Iraq. Protesters called on al-Maliki to stop using state institutions to target Sunnis.

From the outset, al-Maliki refused to listen to their demands and adopted a sectarian approach. Interviewed years later, he said: "The plan was for the Damascus government to fall. After that, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations would head to Iraq to join forces with the camps awaiting them in the Jazira region."

He added that "they would then head to the squares of the sit-in on the main street leading to Baghdad to overthrow the regime… a sectarian movement that wished to eliminate any presence of Shiites in Iraq".

Having made no concessions, the sit-in continued until 2013, when the Iraqi president ordered the army to storm the squares. By then, the situation in Syria had deteriorated. IS had emerged and was now taking control of large tracts of land, including several Iraqi cities.

Al-Maliki refused to make any concessions and the sit-in continued until the army was ordered in, by which time the situation in Syria had deteriorated and IS had emerged.

"The withdrawal of the American forces left a big vacuum," said Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The problem, he said, was that "the Iraqi army was not established on a national basis". Yet even despite that, he admitted his utter shock that IS had taken the Iraqi city of Mosul.

"The goal of IS was not to control the city but to liberate the detainees of Badush prison by preoccupying the security forces," he said. "What was shocking was that an army that Nato had built up over 10 years had crumbled within 10 hours."

Peddling sectarian conspiracies 

Succeeding al-Maliki, Haider al-Abadi held similar views, and blamed the corruption of Iraq's security system for the crisis. "When the system is to buy the security of Iraqis through extortion, citizens will neither trust it nor feel represented by it," he said. "Rather, they will fear it and be ready to cooperate with others for protection."

Iraqi forces and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) advance towards the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border as they fight against remnant pockets of Islamic State group.

In the first weeks, residents of overtaken Sunni cities like Mosul welcomed IS. They were unhappy with al-Maliki's policies and discrimination against them. But this sentiment later flipped, as IS showed its true colours.

Al-Maliki takes no responsibility for what happened. He blames IS on a "major conspiracy hatched up by Arab and regional countries" which, he thinks, tried to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. "It prompted those behind this plot to resort to the second option of establishing IS and occupying Iraqi cities."

Initially, residents of overtaken Sunni cities like Mosul welcomed IS. They were unhappy with the policies of discrimination against them. Then IS showed its true colours.

He said orders were given from a cell formed in Iraqi Kurdistan for military commanders and thousands of police officers to withdraw from their positions, not only in Mosul but also in the city of Tikrit and the Syrian-Iraqi border area. 

An open wound, the sectarian conflict reached its ugliest point when IS committed one of the most horrific massacres of Iraq's modern history. In images broadcast around the world, it kidnapped and killed hundreds of trainees returning home to Baghdad.

The number of unarmed victims killed by gunfire and thrown into mass graves at Speicher Camp near Tikrit is estimated to be anywhere between 1,500 to 3,000. Some were shot in the head and dumped in the Tigris River.

This was a defining moment in the Iraqi consciousness. It brought into sharp focus the seriousness of the looming threat, with reports of IS forces headed to Baghdad through Diyala and Abu Ghraib, and dormant cells launching attacks in Sunni neighbourhoods in the capital. 

A Shiite call to arms

Following the Speicher massacre, there was another defining moment: top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani issued an unprecedented fatwa calling on all Shiites capable of fighting to defend Iraq by taking up arms against the Sunni jihadists.

Tens of thousands of young Shiites answered the Grand Ayatollah's call, volunteering to join existing or newly founded groups, later known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Amid the chaos and terror wrought by successive security collapses, Tehran rushed in to aid its allies in Iraq, supplying them with arms, ammunition, and security advisors. Its goal was to strengthen its line of defense led by the Badr Organisation - the Iraqi Hezbollah - and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq.

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Muqtada al-Sadr.

Changing the name of his militia group from "Mahdi Army" to "Peace Brigades," Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also got involved, defending the shrines in Samarra. Their bombing in 2006 ratcheted up sectarian tensions and killed tens of thousands of people.

Tens of thousands of young Shiite men answered the Grand Ayatollah's call by volunteering to join new or existing groups, later known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

It was "starting to look like a sectarian fight, which poses a massive problem," said al-Abadi. "Sectarian as it is, IS now considers itself a state, while the state system itself also seems sectarian. This is a battle from which no victor will emerge."

It led to a Shiite-backed agreement to remove al-Maliki from his position, but his withdrawal from the political scene did not reduce the intensity of sectarian conflict. On the contrary, it was used to aggravate the Shiite community at an unprecedented level.

Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen joined forces to thwart IS — what al-Maliki later described as a "conspiracy" targeting Shiites in the region. The following few years saw several attacks against the Sunni community, the eventual defeat of IS, and its loss of control over Iraqi and Syrian territories.   

Tribe leader Ali Hatim Suleiman said regime forces in Iraq and Syria caused the same level of harm to Sunni areas as the terrorists did.

He criticised the international coalition's air cover, and demanded to know the fate of thousands of disappeared persons, with the exhumation of mass graves and the retrial of thousands who were unjustly sentenced to death.

Saddam's grave in Khazali's hands

Today, years after IS was expelled from Tikrit — and in what many say sums up the state of the Sunnis in the post-Saddam Iraq — fighters affiliated with the Shiite militia Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq control the town of Al-Awja near Tikrit, where Saddam is buried along with his two sons, Qusay and Uday, who were killed by US special forces in Mosul.

An Iraqi fighter from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) checks the severely damaged tomb of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the village of Al-Awja, on the outskirts of Tikrit on April 8, 2018.

The guesthouse where Saddam was buried, along with the graves of other symbols of his regime, were deliberately vandalised after the expulsion of IS from the province.    

His body is not there. During the dark hours of mid-2014, a few weeks before IS took control of Tikrit, members of the Al-Bu Nasir clan, from which Saddam Hussein hailed, exhumed his grave and moved his remains to an unknown location.

Qais Khazali, leader of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, accuses these Tikrit brigades of committing the Speicher Camp massacre, while Sunni fighters accuse his group of massacres in Salah al-Din and Diyala, and of displacing the people of al-Awja and Al-Bu Nasir.

Militants splinter and expand

Hadi al-Amiri led the Badr Organisation, one of the largest armed groups that existed before the fall of the Iraqi regime, and recruited several thousand fighters from Iran. The organisation represents the military arm of the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council, once led by Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was assassinated in 2003.

After the US invasion of Iraq, the Badr Organisation became an independent political party led by al-Amiri, without ever giving up its military wing (despite claims that it did). It was a similar story with the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Mahdi Army was considered to be one of the primary armed groups formed after the Iraq invasion. It helped to expel US and British forces from Iraq and played a crucial role in the sectarian war that followed, with the death over several years of tens of thousands of civilians.

Breaking away from the Mahdi Army, a group led by Khazali and Akram al-Kaabi formed Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. Muqtada al-Sadr accused it of comprising "the worst and most extreme" fighters. Al-Kaabi later defected from Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and formed his own group called the 'Islamic Resistance, al-Nujaba Movement.'

Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades

Meanwhile, under the radar, work was in full swing to establish the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, a new organisation heavily sponsored by Iran. Today it is considered one of the most powerful militias in Iraq. Its Lebanese counterpart runs large and complex security, economic, and social institutions.

Sources close to the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades confirm that it was co-founded by the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. His leadership was never officially announced, even after his death.

Sources say Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades was co-founded by the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, though this has never been announced.

The organisation does not reveal its hierarchy or leadership structure, but it is believed that Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi is its current leader. Its battalions are deployed in several regions across the country, including the border crossing at Al-Qaim.

Its headquarters are in Jurf Sakhar, south-west of Baghdad.  The Jurf Sakhr battle was one of the first waged by the militias against IS, regaining control over it in October 2014. Ever since, it has a closed military zone. The site is under the direct supervision of Hezbollah. Even Iraqi security officials are prohibited.

Proliferation of Shiite militias

In addition to Hezbollah, some Shiite groups follow the doctrine of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, which was rejected by the Najaf religious authority when Khomeini adopted it in 1979.

This fatwa allows Iran's religious rulers – first Khomeini, then Khamenei - to deputise for the Awaited Mahdi or the Twelfth Imam to administer the country's spiritual and temporal affairs. Militias that adopt this doctrine are described as "provincial" and separated from others who follow the Najaf doctrine.

In addition to Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, other prominent groups include Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (led by Abu Alaa al-Walai), the Nujaba Movement (led by Akram al-Kaabi), and Kata'ib Imam Ali (led by Shebl al-Zaidi).

Unlike the dozens of other groups in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, these "provincial" factions are part of the so-called 'Axis of Resistance' which includes militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Gaza. They operated under the direct supervision of Iranian leadership, namely Ismail Qaani, ever since Soleimani was assassinated.  

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Qasem Soleimani

A system that looks set to stay

Since its formation was approved by Iraq's parliament in 2016, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have had their own security system and judicial body and enjoy immunity.

No-one expects it to disappear without a fatwa from al-Sistani reversing his previous one. Protesters at the 'October Demonstrations' accused it of killing and kidnapping hundreds, but the PMF leadership seems to neither listen nor care.

Even though the battles against IS ended years ago, Shiite organisations maintain a permanent presence in Sunni provinces, such as Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Anbar, Kirkuk, and Diyala, despite demands from residents for them to be replaced by regular forces. 

Over time, a great discrepancy has appeared in the worldview of Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities. Despite anger among Shiites at their leaders, who they accuse of corruption, polls always produce the same results, as we saw in the last election.

A quick visit to these Shiite cities reveals why they keep voting for the same iron-fist leaders: for protection against the potential collapse of official military and security forces, as happened in 2014.

So, despite all that they represent, the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr, Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, and Qais Khazali are the de facto leaders of Iraq for the time being. It might be a while before things change. Two decades of fractures are a lot to mend, especially for a new 'quota' government.

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