Iraq is facing a worsening security situation, but the country is not yet in a civil war. What could change that is if Shiites decide they can no longer rely upon the government to protect them, and begin taking matters into their own hands as they did during the civil war period from 2005-2008. Rumors play a large role in Iraq, and currently what is spreading amongst Sunnis are stories of fake checkpoints manned by militiamen who kidnap and murder people. Political parties and the protest movement are magnifying these rumors, and have now incorporated them into their weekly discourse. What’s more is that it is still not clear whether Shiite armed groups are operating again or not. If they are remobilizing it could be a sign that Iraqi society is breaking down once more.
Stories about Shiite militias reviving their activities started at the end of April 2013, and then became a part of the weekly statements made by various political parties and the protest movement. Speaker Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun bloc made one of the earliest public remarks on April 24, which it said that there were militias operating with the consent of the government. It claimed that the security forces withdrew from two neighborhoods in Baghdad, causing residents to fear that militias would move in. By the next month, every week there were more such reports. On May 8, a lawmaker from the Iraqi National Movement (INM) told the press that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needed to protect the public from militias. He stated that the government was turning a blind eye to the activities of Shiite militants, claimed they were being funded and armed by foreign intelligence agencies, a reference to Iran, and noted that the premier’s State of Law was aligned with the League of the Righteous and Hezbollah Brigades, two infamous Special Groups supported by Tehran. On May 14, the Anbar demonstration movement accused militias of working for the authorities, and said they killed an organizer in Diyala. Five days later, the People’s Committee in Anbar announced that Baghdad was massacring people with the help of militias. Then on May 23, Mutahidun held a press conference accusing the government of backing armed groups that were running fake checkpoints with the help of the security forces, and targeting mosques and Friday prayers. The list later called on Iraq’s political parties to stop the government and its militiaal lies. Finally, on May 26, Iyad Allawi got in on the act by saying that militias were being formed and increasing the violence in the country. Whether these groups actually have evidence of Shiite fighters being out on the streets again is not known, because they have not provided any evidence besides the one accusation that militias were behind the murder of a protest leader in Diyala. Otherwise, nothing specific has been revealed. It could be that they are repeating stories that they hear from their constituents. They could also just be exploiting the fears and growing tensions between the Sunni population and the Shiite led government. Talking about militias revives the bad memories of the sectarian war from 2005-2008 when Baghdad and surrounding areas became a battleground between armed Shiite groups and the insurgency, which resulted in the forced resettlement of thousands of people, mostly Sunnis who were cleansed from the capital. By invoking these images, the INM, Mutahidun, and the protest movement could be trying to rally the populace behind them by claiming Prime Minister Maliki is untrustworthy and treacherous, and that he not the insurgency is bringing the country to the brink of civil war.
The constant remarks about militias have led the Shiite parties and others to respond. On May 26, the League of the Righteous denied that it was running fake checkpoints in the capital, and that its opponents were spreading these rumors. A State of Law parliamentarian said that talk about militias was a political ploy by lawmakers. The Interior Ministry added that it did not know about any militia activities. The only exception was Moqtada al-Sadr who called on Baghdad to clear the League of the Righteous from the streets in a statement warning Maliki that he had to protect the public during the current security crisis. It was predictable that these Shiite groups would refute these stories. The Interior Ministry is under the acting control of the premier as well. It was also not surprising that Sadr would exploit these stories since he has an on going feud with the League, which he sees as a threat to his constituency, because it claims to be the legitimate legacy of Sadr’s father. Since Iraq is facing increasing polarization these statements cannot help the situation at all. There’s no reason for Sunnis to believe these parties, and Sadr’s comments were even welcomed by the protest movement.
The only serious attempt to study whether militias are operating or not was recently done by the Institute for the Study of War. At the end of May it issued a report, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize.” It looked at a number of attacks and incidents in Baghdad and Diyala in April and May, which it firmly believed were the work of Shiite militants. Those included an attack upon a café in Amiriya, Baghdad on April 18 that left 27 dead. A shooting at a police checkpoint on May 14 in Baghdad, an assault upon a brothel and a liquor store on May 22, and another café hit in Diyala on May 29, amongst many others. The Institute was sure this was the work of militias for a number of reasons. One was that they did not fit the standard operating procedure of groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, which usually relies upon explosive devices such as car and roadside bombs. Second the location of many of these attacks and their targets, mostly Sunni could also be considered retaliatory attacks against those communities for the insurgency. Bodies were also found in neighborhoods where militias use to drop them off during the civil war. Not all their evidence was convincing however. The attacks upon police checkpoints for example would not serve any purpose, but to undermine security unless Sunni officers manned them. Still, there were enough incidents to raise the question of who was responsible, and whether groups like the League of the Righteous or the Sadrists or some other groups might be behind them.
The news and rumors about Shiite militias operating again in Iraq are only growing in number. That is making the already tense situation in the country worse. The number of deaths just hit a four-year high as insurgents are going on the offensive. Now there are increasing statements by politicians and the protest movement along with some troubling articles that Shiite militias may be operating again in the country. Since the civil war ended groups like the Sadrists have not responded to the constant provocations by Al Qaeda in Iraq and others to rekindle the civil war. Instead they have let the government deal with it. With violence mounting however, these groups could mobilize again to protect their communities and carry out retaliatory attacks if they feel Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not up to the task. That would be a surefire sign that Iraq is heading towards civil war again. As of yet, it’s not clear what is happening on the ground, but it is definitely a worrisome situation.
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