The Shia militias’ moment
Sectarian chaos fomented by the Islamic State group is giving Iranian-backed Shia militias the chance to rise in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi met members of the Iraqi community in Berlin during a visit to Germany earlier this month, he stunned many in the audience who raised concerns about the growing role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and reports of widespread abuses committed by their members.
“They have always been there and they will stay there even after the end of the presence of Da’esh in Iraq,” Al-Abadi told the small crowd at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The remarks were in sharp contrast to the government’s claim that Shia paramilitary groups fighting IS militants are operating under the umbrella of the security forces. They also contradict earlier statements by Al-Abadi that his government has zero tolerance for armed groups operating outside its control.
Some eight months after the beginning of the IS onslaught and its declaration of a Sunni caliphate, Iraqi Shia militias are struggling not only to beat back the radical Sunni militant group but also to make their mark on Iraq’s politics, and maybe even define the country’s future.
The Shia militias surfaced during the sectarian flare-up that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. They were reinvigorated after IS took over swathes of northwestern, Sunni-dominated, Iraq and threatened Baghdad and Shia-populated provinces in the south.
The international media and human rights groups have criticised these militias for alleged abuses, including kidnappings, forcing residents to leave their homes, assassinations and even executions in Sunni areas.
But little attention has been paid to the wider political implications of the rise of the Shia militias and how, in cooperation with their Iranian backers, they are changing the political landscape in Iraq and probably beyond.
The new forces started to emerge a few days after a senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call to arms. After the fall of the northern city of Mosul in June last year, Sistani urged all able-bodied Shia men to join the security forces and stop the IS advance.
Tens of thousands of Shias who showed up at recruiting centres to sign up for the Iraqi security forces ended up joining the militias, some of which were established after IS expanded its reach to control large chunks of the country.
What was thought at first to be a short-term backup for the Iraqi military has now evolved into a new model for the Shia paramilitaries. It is called the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and operates outside the control of Iraqi security forces.
Though it remains largely decentralised, the PMF has been effective in driving back IS jihadists along an extensive battlefront, at a time when Iraqi security forces routed in the IS blitz in Mosul still need rebuilding.
This has allowed the Shia militias to take centre stage not only in the war against IS but also in shaping national politics, which since the fall of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 has been based on a shaky system that attempts to maintain a balance between feuding communities.
But the risk posed by the Shia militias is daunting. Rather than helping to restore peace and stability and re-unite Iraq, their abuses and rising role in politics could further deepen the nation’s ethno-sectarian divisions.
One of the main challenges for the badly needed national reconciliation is the need to reassure Iraq’s Sunnis that the government will be able to reverse the sectarian and divisive policies of the former government of ex-prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and create a more inclusive political system.
Atrocities attributed to members of the Shia militias are threatening to alienate Sunnis, whose support is vital in the fight against IS. Unless the government reins in the Shia militias it will be impossible to convince the Sunni community to turn against the militants.
Most Sunni tribes distrust the Shia militias and have rejected the participation of the PMF in operations to drive back IS from Anbar and Mosul that could begin in a few months.
Last week Hadi Al-Amri, the commander of the Badr Organisation, appeared in a video widely circulated on YouTube. He warned Sunni tribes in the city of Tikrit against staying “neutral” in the fight against IS.
In some cases, the Sunnis’ worst fears have come true. On 7 February, two men from a prominent Sunni tribe were killed in Anbar province after being detained at a checkpoint controlled by a mixture of security forces and Sunni and Shia volunteer fighters.
A few days later, a prominent Sunni tribal sheikh, his son and several of his bodyguards were abducted and killed in Baghdad.
Such incidents led Sunni political leaders to suspend their participation in the government and parliament. They are demanding that the militias be disarmed and dissolved.
Iraq’s Kurds also stand firmly against allowing Shia militias into territories captured by IS, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has insisted that the Shia militiamen will be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the city.
The Kurdish position has triggered a backlash. “You have no right to prevent any Iraqi from entering any province. When we come [to Kirkuk] you will run away,” Qais Al-Khazali, commander of the Iranian-sponsored Asaib Ahl Al-Haq group, said in response to Barzani’s statement.
The quarrel over the militias is further complicating other disputes between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Last week, the KRG said it may withhold crude oil exports over a budget dispute, a move that could derail the fragile power-sharing agreement with the Baghdad government.
The dangers of the rise of the militias also extend to the Shia political groups that have been in power since 2003. Traditional Shia political movements that have monopolised Shia representation for decades, including the Islamic Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, have been eclipsed by the dozens of militias now vying for power.
In the short term, the militias’ increasing strength threatens to undermine the government’s authority and its efforts to reassure Sunnis that their interests are being protected.
The threat from the Shia militias is growing to the point where in the long run its supporters could have the power to overthrow the Shia-led government. Analysts have begun drawing parallels between Iraq’s Shia militias and the Shia Houthis in Yemen, who have replaced the government in a slowly progressing coup.
In a report detailing the militias’ abuses, the international rights group Amnesty International noted that the militias are not subordinate to the government and in many cases appear to have more authority and effective power on the ground than the beleaguered government forces.
The government’s primacy is also being challenged in other realms, including military effectiveness. The Shia militias now outnumber the Iraqi military and show more devotion and fighting skills than the security forces.
Naturally, in this phase of the conflict in Iraq, the militias are bound to affect the security forces’ ability to act effectively.
What is also worrying is Iran’s growing role in building the Shia militias, especially through funding, training and supplying them with weapons. After IS captured Mosul and other cities last year, Iran mobilised its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force.
Iranian top brass, including the powerful commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, Qassim Soleimani, have been travelling to the frontlines to coordinate war plans with militia commanders.
Arguably, in a Middle East already beset by deep sectarian schisms, there are fears that the PMF will evolve into an IRGC-style force whose role in regional conflicts will be to advance a Shia sectarian agenda and Iran’s interests.
But given the disastrous course of events in Iraq since IS’s brutal ascent and the ongoing regional polarisation, one can hardly expect violent non-state actors, including the Iraqi Shia militias, to fail to take advantage of a state weakened by incompetence, factionalism and chaos.
By seizing their chance amid the anarchy, the Shia militias may now have their moment in Iraq. But if they remain as a militarised force after IS is defeated, as stated by Al-Abadi at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, then they will be a strategic game-changer in Iraq.