Tag Archives: Militias

More than just IS

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on April 2, 2015.The paper went to print before the Iraqi military started its operation to root out IS militants from Tikrit in collaboration with the Shia militias. The participation of the militias highlights the challenges to the overall campaign against IS and US-Iranian competition in Iraq which the article aimed to pinpoint.

More than just IS

 As Baghdad prepares to retake Mosul from Islamic State forces, Tehran and Washington seem to be locked in a race for prestige in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

 On 25 March, US bombers launched their first airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Tikrit, coming off the sidelines to help Iraqi government forces fighting to retake control of the city from the terrorist group.

US president Barack Obama approved the bombardment after a request from Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been fighting alongside the Baghdad government troops move aside.

But the US decision to give air support to the Tikrit offensive, the biggest collaboration so far by the US-led coalition with the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, could define the US role in Iraq for years to come and shape its regional struggle with Iran.

The Americans stayed away from the Tikrit campaign when it started four weeks ago, largely because the United States has been refusing to take part in the operation which was launched without consultation with Washington. They insisted that they could only help if the operations were coordinated by the joint Iraqi-US military centre in Baghdad.

Prior to the Tikrit campaign, US officials leaked reports to the American media about the Iraqi military operation in Tikrit, saying that it had no clear targets. The reports also stirred doubts about whether government forces could beat the IS militants in street battles.

Though the Iraqi forces have regained a string of towns and villages near Tikrit from IS, the leaks also claimed that Iraqi short-term tactical victories would not be enough to defeat the group.

A main US criticism of the Tikrit campaign was its heavy reliance on the Shia militias. The latter’s track record of sectarian violence was highlighted in the American media with warnings that their involvement in more offensives threatened to drive more Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of IS.

It may be no coincidence that several human rights groups also released critical reports about abuses by the Shia militias during the Tikrit offensive. Most of these reports highlighted what they termed “violations of the laws of war” against Sunnis in the wake of the IS retreat from the towns.

These and other media reports carried disgruntled messages to al-Abadi, who is also commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, from Washington which has been leading an international coalition against IS since the terror group made stunning advance in northern Iraq last June.

Al-Abadi has also been under pressure from Brett McGurk, deputy leader of the US-led coalition, and Stuart E. Jones, the US ambassador to Iraq, who have been meeting with him regularly to press him to request coalition airstrikes and sidestep the Shia militias.

But when al-Abadi showed reluctance to heed the US warnings, knowing that he cannot tear up the Iraqi rule book without the green light from Iran, US officials went public to make their point about the offensives.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the operation to reclaim Tikrit was dominated by 20,000 Shia militia forces, which far outnumbered the 3,000 Iraqi troops also taking part in the assault.

Dempsey expressed concern about what might happen after the Shia militia forces took control of the Sunni-dominated city. The Obama administration has been pushing al-Abadi to form a Sunni National Guard to police their areas after the IS withdrawal.

After a recent trip to Iraq, Dempsey said he had seen a “plethora of flags” while flying over the country, but only one official flag of Iraq.

Iran showed its anger over the US joining forces with Iraq in the fight for Tikrit and in forcing the Iran-backed militias to stand down. The Iranians have orchestrated their own propaganda effort to discredit the US-led coalition in the anti-IS campaign.

On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said a US drone strike had killed two of its advisers in Iraq. Iran’s controlled media outlets have been reporting airstrikes by coalition warplanes against Iraqi troop positions. Some of these outlets have been selling blown-up reports about the US maintaining networks of supply lines with the terror group.

The United States and Iran have been in stiff competition since Iraq started its campaign against the jihadists who seized huge swathes of land in Iraq in the summer of last year. Iraqi Shia militia leaders have been saying that they intend to deprive Washington of victory and “glory” in Iraq.

But the political match seems to be more than a contest between Iran and the United States over who is taking ownership of the war against IS. Instead, it seems to be a power play over Iraq and even the Middle East as a whole.

For now, efforts to drive IS fighters from Tikrit have entered their second month. While most Iranian-backed Shia armed groups have boycotted the offensives in protest against the US-led airstrikes, Iraq’s military has proved to be ill-prepared to drive the militants back.

That could have a big impact on the liberation of the remaining territories from IS insurgents, especially Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. In February, US Central Command officials disclosed that the battle for Mosul would likely begin in April or May.

Yet, the disagreements over the militias’ role may have far-reaching consequences for Iraq’s fragile government. Al-Abadi seems to be caught in a US and Iranian double-pincer that could not only cost him his job but also the country’s stability.

Since the militias were ordered to step aside, relations between al-Abadi and their leaders have sunk very low, and some of them have even accused the prime minister of hampering the liberation of Tikrit by capitulating to the American conditions.

Others have accused al-Abdi of “selling off” the Shias to the Americans.

On Monday, Hadi al-Amri, a key leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, the name given to the militias, warned that his fighters “will not fire a single bullet” unless the US airstrikes stop.

This is a vital moment for al-Abadi, and it provides his government with possibly its greatest challenge since it was formed in August last year. While the row has brought al-Abadi to the brink of a conflict with the Shia militias, any caving in to the militias will be disturbing to the Iraqi Sunnis and the Americans.

Sunni leaders in Mosul have insisted that the liberation of their city should be carried out without involvement by Iran or the Shia militias except Iraqi volunteers and forces from the Iraqi army.

Tribes in Anbar, another Sunni-dominated province awaiting liberation from IS, have also resisted the participation of the Shia militias in the operations.

Meanwhile, Washington has intensified pressure on al-Abadi’s serving as the putative defender and protector of the Iraqi Sunnis.

On Sunday, US vice-president Joe Biden called al-Abadi to remind him of the importance of “the protection of civilians and of ensuring all armed groups act under the control of the state.”

According to a White House statement, Biden reiterated Washington’s demand that the Iraqi government enable fighters from Sunni provinces to participate in reclaiming their own territory from IS.

Washington is expected to increase the pressure ahead of a visit to the White House by al-Abadi in mid-April to discuss US military cooperation with Iraq in the joint fight against IS.

Moreover, the Tikrit offensive and the widely expected campaign to retake Mosul could have an impact on wider regional conflicts involving Iran with the Sunni Arab world, if Shia militias resume their participation in the anti-IS campaign.

Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of fuelling the conflict in a number of countries across the Middle East, including Iraq.

The Mosul operation is specifically sensitive to neighbouring Turkey, a largely Sunni populated nation which maintains close ties to Iraqi Sunnis.

While Turkey is concerned about Iran’s role, many in the country emphasise historical affiliations with Mosul going back to the Ottoman occupation of Iraq.

Twelve years after the US-led invasion that turned Iraq into a playground for terrorists and foreign forces, the bickering over the war against IS is not about defeating the terror group as much as it is about regional power.

The Shia militias’ moment

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.

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.