As the security situation has worsened in Iraq Baghdad has turned to militias more and more. Some point to the fall of Mosul in June 2014 as the turning point in this trend, but in fact armed Shiite groups started operating again in early 2013 in response to the renewed insurgency. Today they are working with the security forces on all major fronts, and have been accused of kidnapping and killing civilians. The majority of them are beholden to Iran increasing Tehran’s influence on the ground. The militias highlight the weakness of the state. It can’t protect its people, it is letting its neighbor come in and direct part of its security portfolio, and most importantly it will be harder then ever to remove the militia influence because they are being integrated into the government apparatus more every day.
Members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq on parade in Karbala March 2014 It's gunmen like these that the Iraqi government has become more dependent on to face the insurgency (Reuters)
In the spring of 2013 there were anecdotal stories of militias operating in Baghdad. In May for example Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) the League of the Righteous denied that it was running checkpoints in the capital. That same month Reuters interviewed a man in Baghdad who claimed he was kidnapped by militias, Al Mada reported that three former Baathists were killed in Babil, which was blamed on Shiite groups, and finally Moqtada al-Sadr accused the League of being back on the streets. This was the first appearance in U.S. and Iraqi sources of militias attacking Sunnis once again. It’s not like groups such as AAH had ever disappeared, but they seemed to be involved in other activities. In 2012 they went to Syria to defend the Assad regime under the leadership of Iran. The League also turned to politics becoming an ally of Premier Nouri al-Maliki in his attempt to cut into the Sadr’s base. In 2013 the insurgency started making a major comeback and that seemed to focus the militias back on fighting them.
Claims of militia violence only increased in the second half of 2013. In September an AAH leader said that the organizations had contacts within the security forces (ISF) and then the next month its leader Qais Khazali announced that he was creating popular committees in the capital to assist the ISF. According to the New York Times this involved getting badges and weapons from the government. Another group the Badr Organization said it would help the security forces with the growing insurgency in Baghdad and Diyala at that same time. This was a major change, because Badr had focused upon being a political party in the last several years after being a major militia in the country. The armed factions were not just active in central Iraq, but the south as well. In September 20 men were found shot and killed in Basra. Some came with notes saying that they had been executed in retaliation for bombings by the Islamic State (IS). This was exactly how the civil war took off in 2005. Constant insurgent attacks upon Shiite targets, especially with mass casualty bombings led to militias taking the matters into their own hands, because they didn’t believe the ISF were up to the task. They used elements that had been integrated into the security forces along with their gunmen in the streets to carry out attacks, including kidnapping people, killing them, and then dumping their bodies.
The major growth in the Shiite groups occurred in 2014. By January the League was operating in Anbar after open fighting started there. A militia commander Anwar al-Bahadil for example, who had been deployed to Syria previously was killed in Anbar that month. That represented a larger trend of all the militias bringing their fighters back from Syria to Iraq to confront the insurgency. They justified this re-deployment the same way they did in Syria, saying they were there to protect the country’s shrines. In February, militias were said to be working in Diyala when the town of Mukhisa was taken by IS, and then Shiite fighters and the ISF moved in killing a number of civilians and burning some homes. The next month, militias helped retake Buhriz, killing around two dozen civilians, and burning three mosques in the process, and were charged with driving families out of Qara Tapa as well. In Baghdad, there were stories of militiamen wearing ISF uniforms and executing people. For example, in April 50 bodies showed up in the capital’s morgue handcuffed and shot in the head. In Madain, which is in the southern portion of the province 16 men were killed in drive by shootings or were taken away by men with security badges who were later found dead. These were all hallmarks of Shiite militiamen. The fall of most of Anbar in January became a major rallying cry for the militias. The growing insurgent threat at home was important enough for them to move their focus from Syria back to the homeland, and that was welcomed by the Baghdad government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki openly welcomed the militias. According to Reuters, on April 7 the premier held a meeting with politicians about the Shiite groups. He said he was frustrated with the inability of the security forces to subdue the insurgency, and was turning to the militias for their battle experience. He created a special directorate under his office of commander and chief to direct their activities. This included their integration into the ISF, which was how they received uniforms, manned checkpoints, and why they were fighting in Anbar, Diyala, and Babil.
This official backing led to an expansion of the armed groups. April marked major recruiting drives by many groups starting with the Hezbollah Brigades who formed Popular Defense Brigades. The Badr Organization and AAH followed its lead creating similar units. Militias that were in Syria also started operating in Iraq such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Afwaj al-Kafi. The latter has close links to SWAT and the Special Operations Forces and was fighting in Abu Ghraib in western Baghdad governorate. Again the movement of Syrian militias to Iraq showed where their focus was by 2014.
In another sign of the growing power of the militias within the government Transportation Minister Ameri and head of Badr was given control of security in Diyala by Maliki (AFP)
Since the fall of Mosul in June the militias have increased their presence and activities, and so have their Iranian allies. The groups said to be working across Iraq from Salahaddin to Ninewa to Kirkuk to Diyala to Anbar to Salahaddin to Babil included the Hezbollah Brigades, the League of the Righteous, the Badr Organization, Faylaq Waad al-Sadiq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib Sayid al-Shuhada, Saraya Tali al-Khurasani, Kataib al-Zahra, Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas, Afwaj al-Kafi, Sadr’s new Peace Brigades, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) militia. Transportation Minister Hadi Ameri who heads Badr was even given control of security in his home province of Diyala by Maliki. The stories of abuses continue as well. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found evidence of their collaboration with the ISF to execute around 250 prisoners in five separate incidents. AAH was blamed for 50 blinded folded and shot bodies being found in Babil in July. It was so emboldened that it was accused of kidnapping the head of the Baghdad province council and his bodyguards that month. The council head’s security was beaten in an attempt to garner an admission that they were all supporters of the insurgency. In August, Baghdad’s governor accused militias of kidnapping and terrorizing innocent people. With the exception of the Sadrists all of these groups were receiving money, training, weapons, and leadership from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) who helped create most of them in the first place. AAH for instance was said to receive $1-$2 million a year from Tehran, while there were various reports of IRGC advisers being in Iraq helping to direct security operations. The loss of Mosul only accelerated the return and inclusion of the militias within the government security apparatus that started a year beforehand. The government’s desperation, and Iran’s shock at the advance of the insurgency across northern Iraq put an emphasis upon putting as many gunmen in the field as quickly as possible to confront the threat, and that was accomplished by calling out the Shiite groups.
Hezbollah Brigades marching with image of Ayatollah Khomeini showing where their loyalties lie (BBC)
Baghdad’s weakness in the face of the new insurgency is increasing it reliance upon the militias and Iran. This happened long before the current offensive, and goes back to 2013 when there was a dramatic increase in militant attacks and civilian casualties. When that eventually exploded in Anbar in January 2014 Iran and the militias were ready as it began moving men and material from Syria to Iraq. Now they are all working together across the central part of the country. This is leading to long-term divisions and breakdowns of the state. First, a new wave of sectarian killing has started, and could eventually become cleansing of Sunnis from major cities as occurred during the last civil war. Baghdad shows no concern over this matter either because it thinks it is collateral damage in the war against the insurgency or worse sees them as legitimate attacks because Sunnis are considered supporters of the militants. Second, the use of militias plays into the hands of the insurgency who have long claimed the government is using them to terrorize Sunnis and is nothing but an Iranian stooge. It will be hard to win over Sunnis to the government’s side and join the security forces if they know there are militia elements embedded throughout them and Iranian advisers are out in the field. Third, it will be nearly impossible for the state to rid itself of the militias once the fighting ends. They were never disarmed nor disbanded and now some of them such as the Badr Organization and the League of the Righteous have become allies of the prime minister. Thousands of Badr and Mahdi Army fighters were taken into the armed forces and police and remained there after the U.S. invasion. They now have plenty more of their brethren joining up too, and are considered one of the backbones of the ISF. Finally, Iran’s influence is growing with this increasing use of militias. All of them but the Sadrists are beholden to Tehran. That has allowed it to move from just providing assistance to its allies and the security forces to actually running part of the security portfolio. IRGC General Qassim Suleimani is said to be in Iraq quite often in recent months visiting the front and directing operations based upon his strategy and experience in Syria. Iraq was desperate for foreign assistance when the insurgency restarted, and there little was coming. That vacuum allowed Iran to step in and its unlikely it will give up this increased power within the country. Some Iraqis have welcomed the return of the militias for helping to bring the country back from the brink after insurgents charged south from Mosul towards Baghdad. What they don’t realize is that these militias will not go away when the fighting is over, and neither will Iran keeping the government weak, which was why it couldn’t stand up to the militants in the first place.
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