With the US reluctant to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Kurdish fighters focused on defending the Kurdistan region; hopes are staked on Shia fighters “liberating” the areas of Iraq captured by ISIS.
The reliance on these militias is seen as particularly crucial, given the almost total collapse of the Iraqi army after the fall of Mosul earlier in the year. In areas where the Iraqi army is still operating, reports consistently portray it as dysfunctional and divided, playing a secondary role to the Shia militias funded and trained by Iran.
The head of Iraq’s powerful Qods force, Qassem Soleimani has recently been on the front lines in Iraq and the Qods Force and Republican Guard are training and expanding these militias, as well as keeping them well supplied with weapons. Hundreds of Iranian Republican Guards are embedded within these militias as “leaders and advisors” according to on-the-ground reports.
As is the case in Lebanon, where Hezbollah are a far better equipped and stronger force than the Lebanese army and in Syria where Bashar Al-Assad is effectively an Iranian puppet kept in place through Iranian financial and military power – these pro-Iran militias are becoming the dominant military entity in Iraq.
Nor are these militias just a military power –accounts show that these Iranian-backed militias played a key role in blocking appointments of new interior and defence ministers in a parliamentary vote last week. Militias lika Asa’ib Ahl-Al-Haqq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps are reportedly holding talks with the new administration about which candidates for these posts will be acceptable to them – i.e.; they hold a veto on Iraq’s present and future military and security strategies.
While Haider Al-Abadi is the new Prime Minister, it is clear that many of these militias still hold allegiance to his predecessor Nouri Al-Maliki. On recent occasions these militias seem to have directly ignored orders from the administration, for example instructions not to target Sunni villages in the Salahuddin region.
These are the same militias that carried out waves of ethnic cleansing against Sunnis in Baghdad and other mixed regions during the worst of the post-2003 sectarian violence. They murdered hundreds of US and Iraqi troops and have a violently sectarian agenda.
Many online videos show these militias pledging to murder Sunnis in revenge for ISIS massacres. They clearly believe themselves to have an agenda that goes beyond combatting ISIS and has more to do with imposing a Shia pro-Islamic Republic ideology across all of Iraq.
The Kurds have used the collapse of the Iraqi army to further their own agenda of statehood, and these Shia militias have likewise used the instability to further their own expansionist agenda. In areas recaptured by militias like Ahl-Al-Haqq and Hezbollah, Sunnis have been prevented from returning to their homes. There have been revenge attacks against civilians and villages have been pillaged and resettled. Likewise there have been fresh waves of attacks perpetrated by these militias in Baghdad, with the bodies of Sunni civilians turning up in morgues across the capital each day.
We can therefore expect that any further gains made by these militias will be at the expense of the Sunni population . This will be particularly dangerous as efforts increase to penetrate into the huge Sunni region of Al-Anbar and could result in wholesale sectarian war.
Such atrocities will undoubtedly encourage many Sunnis to embrace ISIS as their protector against hostile forces and this can only give ISIS greater legitimacy as the defender of Sunnis in Iraq and aid recruitment across the region. It would be ironic if the struggle against ISIS actually made it stronger and more influential.
Thus, more international attention needs to be drawn to the harm these extremist militias are doing. They have an ideology and tactics that are every bit as extreme and dangerous as that of ISIS. Furthermore they are exploiting the situation to gain a stranglehold over the Iraqi state in the name of Iran.
Iraq may have a new administration that superficially looks more benevolent under Haidar Al-Abadi – himself from the pro-Iran Da’wah Party – but the sectarian forces pulling the strings of this administration seem stronger than ever, particularly with the three former prime ministers who share much of the blame for the sectarian catastrophe in Iraq holding some of the most powerful positions within this new Cabinet.
If the alliance of nations seeking to combat ISIS wants to eradicate this terrorist organization from Sunni areas of Iraq, it must do this through empowering Sunni forces; not by allowing a leading role for forces hostile to Sunnis and hostile to the idea of a unified and sovereign Iraq.