There are now a plethora of militias operating in Iraq. Some have been around a long time like the Badr Organization that was formed in the 1980s, while others are relatively new. One of the latter is the Khorasani Brigade, which first came out into the public eye at the end of 2013. It was one of many pro-Iranian Iraqi militias deployed to fight the rebels in Syria. It has now moved to Iraq where it has taken part in some of the most recent security operations. Two of those were in Tuz Kharmato in Salahaddin and Jalawla in Diyala. Now the brigade is involved in a dispute between Shiite armed groups and Kurds over control of those two areas, pointing to a much larger power struggle brewing in Iraq’s disputed territories.
Khorasani Brigade’s Official Press Outlet with logo and Ayatollah Khamenei (Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
The Sariya al-Tali’a al Khorasani, Khorasani Brigade first became public in September 2013. That was the month it posted announcements about its activities in Syria on Facebook. Like other Iraqi factions involved in Syria the Khorasani Brigade said it was fighting in the Damascus area in defense of the Sayid Zainab shrine. On social media it also announced its loyalty to Iran and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Phillip Smyth pointed out on Jihadology the group’s logo is a variation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. By 2014 it was fighting in Iraq against the insurgency. It receives government funding under a program started by Premier Nouri al-Maliki to bring militias into the government security apparatus. It also works with advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force, and receives supplies from Tehran as well. In 2012, several Iraqi militias backed by Iran mobilized to go to Syria. This was after Quds Force commander General Suleimani put out the call to his Iraqi allies to come fight in that country. In 2013 many of those groups started moving back to Iraq as the insurgency started picking put there. They are now on the frontlines in almost every part of the country.
Two areas the Khorasani Brigade is currently working in are Tuz Kharmato in eastern Salahaddin and Jalawla in northeast Diyala. In the former, a Brigade commander said that it had 800 men there in November 2014. In Tuz’s Yangije a reporter for Foreign Policy found the town full of Khorasani militiamen. Residents accused the militia of destroying homes, arresting people, kidnapping others, and keeping locals from returning because they were believed to be supporters of the insurgency. The Brigade was also involved in a dispute with the peshmerga over control of the area. There was a firefight in Salam between the two sides that led to the death of one Shiite fighter. The Khorasani Brigade took six peshmerga hostages in retaliation. The group was also involved in the clearing of Jalawla in November. The head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party office stated there were 3,000 Khorasani members in the town. He went on to say that both the Kurds and Shiites were looting homes in the area. Like in Tuz Kharmato the two sides were arguing over who would control Jalawla. A Brigade commander told Reuters that the Kurds could not stay there. He claimed the peshmerga were bulldozing Arab homes to stop them from returning. Sunni refugees pointed the finger at the militias for keeping them out, and were afraid to return because of their presence. Another Khorasani commander blamed the problems in Jalawla mostly on the Kurds, but at the same time blamed any clashes between them on individuals, not any larger problems between them. Tuz Kharmato and Jalawla are both part of the disputed territories, which the Kurdistan Regional Government claims as historically theirs. During the summer the Islamic State seized them, and now that it has been pushed out the militias and Kurds are fighting for control. The militias say that they should remain under the government’s control setting the stage for a series of clashes.
The Khorasani Brigade’s actions in Tuz Kharmato and Jalawla point to some of the problems Iraq will face relying upon irregular forces. First, it is carrying out sectarian cleansing along with other militias in Tuz Kharmato and Jalawla. Some towns in the two areas have been completely destroyed and thousands have been displaced with little hope to return any time soon. That’s because the militias see the civilian population as the support base for the insurgents and are therefore considered legitimate targets. This is a repeat of the previous civil war from 2005-2008 when militias dramatically transformed the demographics in the center of the country by pushing out Sunnis. Second, the competition between the militias and peshmerga for control of the disputed territories will not end anytime soon. The Khorasani Brigade and others like Badr are pushing for government control of the areas not just because they are centralists, but also because of their ties to Iran. Tehran has warned the Kurds about declaring independence at this time, and appears to be using their militia allies to push the point in Salahaddin and Diyala. This could continue long after the insurgents are contained. Since Baghdad only has marginal control of the militias it will be difficult to rein them in, and likely require deals with Iran, which has become the dominant force in the country already. Groups like the Khorasani Brigade while helping to defeat the militants today, could lead to longer term divisions within Iraq down the road.
Ali, Dashty, “A New Northern Frontline Where Iraq’s Kurds And Shiites Are Facing Off,” Niqash, 12/18/14
Coles, Isabel, “Rivalries resurface in Iraqi town recaptured from Islamic State,” Reuters, 12/8/14
Fulton, Will, Holliday, Joseph & Wyer, Sam, “Iranian Strategy In Syria,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project & Institute for the Study of War, May 2013
Hassan, Tirana, “The Gangs of Iraq,” Foreign Policy, 11/3/14
Hawramy, Fazel and Harding, Luke, “Shia militia fightback against Isis sees tit-for-tat sectarian massacres of Sunnis,” Guardian, 11/12/14
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Hussein, Mohammed, Osgood, Patrick, al-Atbi, Adam, “Shia militias spark furor in disputed territories,” Iraq Oil Report, 12/8/14
Mahmoud, Nawzad and Fraidon, Nahroz, “Jalawla: a lawless ghost town of Peshmerga and Shiite militias,” Rudaw, 12/16/14
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