A row over Iraq’s Shia militias

A UAE’s list of “terrorist organizations” provokes outrage by Iraq’s Shia ruling coalition, writes Salah Nasrawi
Every time Iraqi Shia armed groups are accused of abuses against Sunnis, the country’s Shia ruling elite come to their defense. They even express indignation for calling them militias and insist that they are para-military forces which function as back-up to the security forces under the government’s guise.
But last week’s Iraqi Shia leadership’s reaction to the United Arab Emirates’ move to include some of these militias in its new terrorism list was so furious that it had almost provoked a diplomatic tussle. Vise President and former Nuri Al-Maliki accused the UAE of supporting terrorism while some Shia leaders accused it of being sectarian. Protesters in several Shia cities demanded that the oil-rich state make an apology.
The controversy started on 15 November when the UAE blacklisted 83 organisations as terrorists in line with a law it has issued to combat “terrorism crimes.” The measure is also part of the Gulf state’s continued crackdown on Islamic–oriented groups deemed to be a threat to its security. Though the list includes IS, Al-Nusra and other jihadist groups, others are well known Sunni Muslim organizations active in politics or charity.
At least one UAE group, Al-Islah, that the authorities say is part of the Muslim Brotherhood is included in the list.
The UAE move has satisfied a promise by its government to crackdown on Islamist political groups in co-ordination with other countries in the region like Egypt and Saudi Arabia which also consider groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations.
In August, the UAE passed a law which defined a wide range of activities as terrorism crimes. Under the law people charged with crimes, such attempts on the life of head of the UAE president and rulers of other emirates or their families or endangering their freedoms of their safety will be sentenced with death by hanging.
But the law imposes harsh punishments on other “terrorism crimes”, including attending meetings by people deemed be terrorists. For example, those who “declare publically their hostility” to the state or to the regime, or show “disloyalty to the leadership” are punished by ten years in jail.
UAE officials did not comment on Iraq’s Shia groups’ reactions but its State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said organizations on the list can appeal to his country’s courts to revoke the decision if they can provide enough evidence that they are not involved in terrorist activities.
While it remains unclear how the UAE’s measures will affect foreign organzaitions, the move can still carry political and moral weight. Groups which have been included on similar lists in the past suffered from negative publicity even after they were removed from the lists. Terrorism branding may also have political ramifications, such as condemning the political and ideological goals of the communities the groups represent.
This explains the immediate strong reaction to the news of the inclusion of Shia militias, such as Asaib Al-Haq, Kataab Hozbollah and the Badr Organisation in the UAE’s list. These groups have joined the so-called the “Popular Mobilization”, or Shia fighters who answered a call by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani to arms after the Islamic State (IS) terror group captured Sunni towns in a June major offensive.
“We condemn these false accusations,” said a statement by the leadership of the Iraqi National Alliance after an emergency meeting chaired by its head Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and attended by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and other Shia leaders.
The sharp-worded statement also slammed the UAE’s move as “hostile” to the Iraqi people and “a clear support to terrorism and the criminal forces.” “It is like throwing a rescue rope to IS while it is breathing its last,” the Shia leaders said, demanding that the UAE revoke its decision.
Iraq’s government, which has been reaching out to Sunni neighbours whose relations with Baghdad were strained in the years of former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule, did not react immediately to the UAE’s decision. Still, the Shia Alliance’s statement seems to be purposeful and reflective of Iraq’s Shia ruling elite.
There is a big controversy in Iraq over the Shia militias. Sunnis have accused them of committing atrocities while carrying out retaliatory attacks. Last week Sunni Vice-President Osama Al-Nujiafi told senior Shia politician and leader of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council Ammar Al-Hakim that the government should “put a halt on violations by irresponsible groups” against Sunnis.
The UN human rights agency and international rights groups have accused the Shia militias of gross violations, including abducting and murdering Sunnis in retaliation for attacks by IS. Amnesty International has said that the militias, which are armed and supported by the Iraqi government, face complete impunity for their actions.
The government of Prime Minister A-Abadi has vowed to rein in the Shia militias. On Friday Minister of Interior Mohammad Salim Al-Ghaban denied any connection between “these factions and kidnapping or blackmailing of citizens.” Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, however, acknowledged violations by “some” of these militias though he distanced his Sadrist Movement from atrocities.
“Those who terrorize people and aggress on them and their properties unlawfully don’t belong to us. The majority are infiltrators who belong to enemies and abhorrent militias,” he said in a statement.
Iraq’s Shia militias were created after the US invasion in 2003 to fill security vacuum and encounter increasing attacks on Shia neighborhouds and towns by extremist Sunni insurgents. Some of them, such as the Mahdi Army and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, joined major armed confrontation against the US troops.
The issue of the Shia militias, however, has become very contentious after the IS advance and its seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territories. The Iranian-backed Shia militias are reported to have played a key role in halting IS’s onslaught, protecting the capital Baghdad and key Shia shrines and retaking key towns from the terror group.
In recent months the Iraqi government has been talking about integrating the Shia militias into the security forces. It is already paying their salaries and providing them with weapons. Many of the militias are wielding enormous influence in Shia neighborhouds. They are also represented in the parliament and the government and play an increasing role in Iraq’s polity.
Many questions now surround the UAE’s decision to include the Iraqi Shia militias in its terrorism black list. While the UAE has not explained why the Iraqi Shia militias are on its list of terrorist organizations, the simmering sectarian crisis in Iraq has cast a shadow on its move. Many Iraqi Shia feel that they are being targeted by the Arab Sunni world as Iraq’s sectarian tensions have reached a fever pitch.
One precondition made by the US-led coalition to help Iraq combating IS is for a political process that allows for the various communities of Iraq to come back together. A centeral piece of the strategy, pushed by the coalition, which includes the UAE and several other Arab countries, to defeat IS, is to create a mainly Sunni national guard force to police Sunni-dominated provinces.
The Shia political groups which dominate the government have been reluctant to endorse the creation of such an autonomous force for fear that it will be infiltrated by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists and other Sunni insurgents who might turn against the government once they are left operating independently.
As a counter proposal, the Shia groups want to incorporate the Shia militias into the national guard which should also be put under the prime minister’s command. Some Shia lawmakers say that if a bill to set up the guard will come to the parliament they will insist that Kurdish Peshmergas forces should also be part of the new guard units, a move Kurds have vehemently rejected.
Hence comes the furry of the Iraq Shia leaders for the inclusion of several Iraqi Shia armed groups in the UAE terrorism list. With ethno-sectarian tensions continue, Iraq’s communal factions are expected to rely more heavily on their armed groups as their traditional insurance policy. This trend is expected to continue until an all inclusive security system is established and a political solution for Iraq’s sectarian crisis is found.
By branding their armed groups terrorists, Iraqi Shia will feel that there is a deliberate attempt by some Sunni Arab governments to mix what they perceive as their legitimate self- defense against terrorism with the brutal violence which is driven by ideological appeal sought by the IS.

The article in Al-Ahram Weekly November 27 issue was sent to print before UAE’s foreign minister’s visit to Baghdad a day earlier.

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