Nation & World

Iraq’s Shia militias that once fought US, confront extremists, sow fear among Sunnis

Hatem Abu Hazal lives between two frightening forces in northeast Iraq.

On one side, he fears Sunni militants from the Islamic State who’ve been trying to seize territory near his home in Diyala Province for months.

On the other, Hazal is just as troubled by the Iraqi government’s response to the extremists: Sanctioning intimidating Shiite militias whose presence in his town corresponded with a noticeable uptick in kidnappings for ransoms.

“It’s a disaster,” said Hazal, a Sunni Muslim in the Shiite majority city of Muqdadia. “They’re all rubbish.”

That “disaster” came into sharp relief on Friday when Shiite gunmen allegedly affiliated with one of the militias attacked a Sunni mosque, killing scores of worshippers.

The attack threatens to undermine any political progress that might be made to resolve disagreements between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni political blocs have already withdrawn from talks about forming a new government, calling the massacre a “natural result” of the military’s decision to allow unaccountable militias to operate alongside of official forces.

Members of Iraq’s Sunni minority long have complained that the country’s security forces unfairly targeted them, but their fears have heightened since Iraq’s most-revered Shiite cleric in June gave a call to arms for men to defend their country against the Islamic State militants sweeping toward Baghdad.

Ayatollah Ali al Sistani’s fatwa came at a moment of crisis, with the country shocked by the Islamic State’s victories across Iraq and the collapse of three Iraqi army divisions.

His call motivated more than 40,000 men to join Iraq’s official government security forces, according to the Ministry of Defense. Untold thousands more are operating alongside the army and police in well-armed militias - the same ones who targeted U.S. forces during the American occupation of Iraq with deadly precision.

In fact, the militias’ record for taking on well-armored American troops is one of their selling points to Iraqi Shiites searching for a force to protect them from the Islamic State’s brutality.

“Because of our experience fighting the Americans, we were at a high level,” said Naim al Abboudi a member of the Iranian-supported Asa’ib Ahl al Haq militia since 2006 who is now its spokesman. “The Americans were at a high level, and we had an obligation to resist the occupiers.”

Ground troops in the Iraqi army had never been tested so severely, Abboudi continued.

“The Iraqi army can’t fight daash,” he said, using a pejorative Arabic name for the Islamic State. The army doesn’t “have experience fighting such groups.”

Now Iranian-backed Shia militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, Kaitaib Hezbollah and the Badr Brigade are practically interwoven with Iraq’s security forces. They man checkpoints, patrol neighborhoods and take on offensive operations against the extremists.

They’re considered legitimate forces since Sistani sanctioned them, so much so that Badr Brigade leader Hadi al Amiri wore a military uniform when he joined outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki at a televised news conference this month. Amiri is leading the Badr Brigade against the Islamic State in Diyala Province, a region he considers his home.

The official line from the government and from the militias is that they report directly to senior Iraqi officers in the field, collaborating on shared operations. But, in some cases, Western officials believe the militias operate as “parallel organizations” on the battlefield with distinct hierarchies separate from the military chain of command.

They also could include thugs who are taking advantage of the instability to harass civilians even if their militia leaders are trying to keep them in line with the government’s goals.

“These militias are ultimately unaccountable and therefore difficult to control,” said John Drake, an Iraq specialist at United Kingdom-based AKE Intelligence. “It doesn’t matter if rogue militiamen or entire militia organizations are engaging in harassment of the Sunni community, their presence alone raises the risk of such activity taking place.”

Militia fighters wear Iraqi military uniforms, but residents can distinguish them from the armed forces by their religious flags, grooming standards and the militia insignias on their trucks.

Their presence sends a chilling message to Sunnis despite assurances that the volunteer fighters are working for the greater good in Iraq.

“I don’t trust the Iraqi security forces these days,” said Ihab Ahmed, 36, an unemployed Sunni in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood west of Baghdad that has housed extremist Sunni militants since the days of the American occupation. It’s now under control of the Iraqi army and foot soldiers from Asa’ib Ahl al Haq.

Like Hazal in Diyala Province, Ahmed blames the militias for a recent kidnapping in Abu Ghraib. He claimed a local Sunni family had paid a five-figure bribe to get a grandfather back from the militias.

“We know raids and arrests are necessary to get rid of the terrorists and be secure, but some of the security forces seem to be out for some sectarian violence or revenge” against Sunni communities suspected of harboring militants, said Sheikh Sattah Najim of Abu Ghraib.

Another Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad was rattled last week when reports emerged about a shootout between Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and the Iraqi army. Fighters from Asa’ib Ahl al Haq allegedly entered a Sunni mosque to apprehend someone, but wound up firing their weapons.

Residents who spoke on condition of anonymity vented to a McClatchy correspondent that “unidentified, undisciplined” militiamen had rattled the neighborhood.

Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and the army insist the incident did not take place as reported. They said it was a misrepresentation planted by the extremists.

“We heard about that from some media,” Abboudi said. “They are our enemies. We deny this happened. We are brothers with the Iraqi army. Why would we shoot at them?”

Already, many officials inside and out of Iraq are contemplating how to draw down the militias when the fighting ends. They could be disbanded, or perhaps retrained and rebranded as a sort of legitimate government force.

As long as they’re outside the official military, “the use of force in Iraq is divided between my government and some other people,” said Jim Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who now is a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

Iraq’s Shiite political parties say they share similar concerns. They praise Sistani’s call to arms because they say it halted the Islamic State’s drive toward Baghdad after it seized Mosul on June 10, but they say they’d prefer that Iraq only employ its own government security forces in battle.

“We have to get rid of the militias,” said Abdul Hussien Alhunien, a representative from the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

His party was once tightly connected to the Badr Brigade militia. Now it’s raising forces to answer Sistani’s call to arms by providing basic training and supplies to army recruits and then handing them over to the military.

The Supreme Council’s top spokesman, Baleegh Abu Kalal, said its recruits are encouraged to treat Sunnis well if they’re deployed to mixed areas.

“If these volunteers or Iraqi security forces are not welcome by the Sunni community, we cannot accomplish anything,” he said.

Abboudi, too, said Asa’ib Ahl al Haq is thinking of when and how it will lay down arms. The time isn’t right, he said, because the army needs Asa’ib Ahl al Haq’s experience in guerrilla warfare to succeed against the Islamic State.

“We don’t want militia groups replacing the Iraqi army. We are training the Iraqi army, giving them our experience and training, to pass-on how to fight daash,” he said.

And if that time does not come?

“We are ready to battle, even if it lasts 10 years,” he said.

McClatchy special correspondents Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad and Adam Mehdi in Diyala Province contributed to this report.

Ashton reports for The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash.