As security continues to deteriorate in Iraq all of the major Shiite parties have said that they are mobilizing their militias. This process started with the Iranian backed groups such as the League of the Righteous, the Hezbollah Brigades, and the Badr Organization back in January 2014. After the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIS) charge through Mosul and into Salahaddin in June the mainstream Shiite parties made the call for men as well. Moqtada al-Sadr said that he was creating a new organization called the Peace Brigades that would defend Iraq’s shrines. Recently they marched through several cities, and were engaged in fighting before that. The rise of militias shows the failure of the state to protect the country.
Sadr's Peace Brigades practicing before the June 21 march (Alsumaria)
Moqtada al-Sadr was one of the last Shiite leaders to publicly call on his followers to arm themselves to face the insurgent threat. On June 11, 2014 he said that he was forming Peace Brigades to protect Iraq’s shrines. Three days later he stated that these new units would hold marches throughout the provinces to show their strength. Offices were then set up across Iraq to take in volunteers, and then on June 21 the Sadrists paraded through Baghdad, Amarah, Basra City, and other locations in the south. Unofficially, Sadr’s forces had been organizing as early as January 2014 when Fallujah and much of Anbar fell to insurgents. They have been integrated into the security forces, received training from the army, and been deployed to Salahaddin, Ninewa and Diyala provinces. Sadr was one of the last Shiite leaders to publicly come out for remobilizing his militia. That was for three reasons. First, he is an opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and did not want to be seen supporting him. Second, most of the militias are beholden to Iran, which Sadr also has problems with, so he did not want to follow Tehran’s lead. Third, Sadr has struggled to portray himself as a statesman since 2003 instead of a militia leader. He was therefore loath to openly call out his men again. As Phillip Smyth noted by the time Mosul fell in June and the Islamic State of Iraq and other insurgent groups made a charge towards Baghdad Sadr and others were forced into action to save face if nothing else since the whole country appeared to be threatened.
Images from the June 21 march in Baghdad
Sadr’s militia and others are now fighting the insurgency across Iraq, which is a step back for the country. The state does not have a monopoly over violence and that is why it is turning to the militias once again. 60 of Iraq’s 243 army battalions disintegrated in just a few days after the fall of Mosul, and there have been other militant gains in Ninewa and Anbar since then. A sense of desperation has slowly grown across the country, which has led to this mobilization of gunmen. This may seem like a new development, but in fact the militias have never disappeared. They carried out attacks against the U.S. right up to the last day of the withdrawal in 2011, and then the Iranian connected ones went to fight in Syria. In the end this will strengthen the hand of these armed groups, political parties, and Tehran in Baghdad. It will also cause more tensions as Sunnis have complained about militias carrying out extra judicial killings. Even worse, there is the threat that this could all escalate to another wave of sectarian cleansing. History has a funny way of repeating itself in Iraq. The attacks upon Mosul, Salahaddin, Kirkuk and Diyala are very similar to the 2004 uprising. The militias now mobilizing in response is like 2005. If the country were to descend into sectarian fighting once again it would be a repeat of the civil war from 2005-2008. That would be a tragic turn of events.
Ali, Ahmed and Kagan, Kimberly, “The Iraqi Shi’a Mobilization to Counter the ISIS Offensive,” Institute for the Study of War, 6/14/14
Buratha News, “Muqtada al-Sadr calls on his supporters to organize parade” next Saturday “to show their equipment and numbers,”” 6/14/14
Chivers, C.J., “Answering a Cleric’s Call, Iraqi Shiites Take Up Arms,” New York Times, 6/21/14
Fox News, “Shiite cleric issues threat to US military advisers as Iraq militants take border post,” 6/21/14
Al Mada, “Sadr’s office in Maysan opens the door to volunteers from “Peace Brigades” and the willingness to continue the review of the military,” 6/19/14
Morris, Loveday, “Iraqi army increasingly bolstered by Shiite militias as ISIS advances,” Washington Post, 6/20/14
- “Shiite ‘peace brigades’ send signal of aggression with major rally in Baghdad,” Washington Post, 6/21/14
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Iraq’s Dire Situation,” 6/16/14