When fighting broke out in Anbar at the very end of December 2013 Iraq’s militias began mobilizing in response. This involved bringing back fighters from Syria and launching new recruiting drives within Iraq. Since then they have become an integral part of many units of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as well as operating their own fighting forces. With this increased presence have come reports that they are carrying out sectarian attacks upon Sunni civilians. This comes as no surprise as the militias used similar tactics during the 2005-2008 civil war such as kidnapping and executing people, and destroying and confiscating homes to force Sunnis out of neighborhoods. As the fighting drags on and approaches Baghdad these stories are likely to increase and grow bloodier with time.
The latest United Nations human rights report documented some of these militia attacks in Diyala and Salahaddin. On July 5 or 6 members of the League of the Righteous went into Ballor, Diyala and destroyed nine homes. They were also accused of wrecking five mosques in the Mansuriya and Muqtadiya districts of Diyala. July 10 militias abducted 23 farmers in Balad, Salahaddin. Around that same time up to 170 people were said to have been picked up at checkpoints run by militiamen along the Kirkuk-Samarra highway. Three displaced men told the United Nations that soldiers and members of the League executed 17-18 Sunni men in Nofal, Diyala on July 20. Later that month witnesses said that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militiamen were blowing up and burning houses in Harweena, Diyala. One of the bloodiest incidents happened in Bani Wais, Diyala on August 22 when militiamen probably form the Zarkoosh tribe attacked a mosque in retaliation for an earlier IED attack. 34-68 worshippers were massacred, and the gunmen fired at houses on the way out of the village. Afterward the Diyala governor announced the creation of local defense units to protect people from militias. Shiite gunmen have been heavily deployed in both Diyala and Salahaddin since the summer. Badr Organization head Hadi Ameri was even given control of security in the former by Premier Maliki. Given that level of commitment and influence it is no wonder then that they have been carrying out these acts there.
Media outlets and human rights groups have come across similar events perpetrated by the militias in Babil and Salahaddin. The Financial Times and Human Rights Watch both found evidence of militias attempting to cleanse Sunnis from Latifiya in northern Babil. Locals told the Financial Times that militiamen were destroying farmland, killing livestock, cutting off water supplies, bulldozing homes, carrying out mass arrests, and ordering people to leave. Likewise Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 people from Latifiya who said that militias operating with the Federal Police and the Army’s 17th Division were kidnapping people. In one incident on June 11 137 men were picked up by gunmen from a market. Later 30 of them were found dead. Militias have also been accused of blowing up homes. Rudaw and Iraq Oil Report have filed stories of similar intimidation campaigns going on in eastern Salahaddin’s Tuz Kharmato district. After militias helped retake Amerli in Salahaddin, the peshmerga said they began carrying out revenge attacks upon local Sunnis. A peshmerga officer said that in the town of Engija militias destroyed homes and stores belonging to Sunnis. A Badr Organization commander in Sulaiman Bek told Rudaw that they had the right to kill Sunnis and take their property if they helped the Islamic State. In late August a video emerged of militiamen beheading a man in Tuz Kharmato who was accused of working for IS. The next month the peshmerga found a grave with six Sunni bodies in it, while Kurdish officials accused militias of looting and burning homes of Sunnis who fled Sulaiman Bek and Amerli to prevent them from returning. Finally, three Sunni homes were bombed in the city of Tuz in the middle of September. Latifiya has been a long time insurgent base and was once dubbed part of the Triangle of Death by the Americans. The ISF along with the militias have failed to clear the area despite more than ten security sweeps there since the start of the year. With the failure of these conventional means the militias have turned to cleansing areas of Sunnis to deny insurgents their support base. In Tuz Kharmato the militias are attempting to assert their control over the area, and are following the same tactics so that only Shiites remain there.
As the Iraqi Security Forces have continued to collapse across Iraq the government has become more dependent upon militias for support. In turn these groups have returned to their old tactics of mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, and sectarian cleansing just like they did during the last civil war. Rather than trying to protect the population and finding Sunni allies the militias see civilians as a target in their war with the insurgency. They are making a bad situation worse by inflaming tensions and making it harder for the government to find local Sunni allies. As the fighting drags on these abuses will only increase, and so will their hold upon the security forces.
Daragahi, Borzou, “Iraq’s sectarian war rages on as world focuses on Isis,” Financial Times, 9/26/14
Evers, Erin, “Beyond Mosul,” Open Democracy, 9/26/14
Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Human Rights Office, “ Report on the Protection
Hussamaddin, Hiwa, “Shiite Militias Pose Threat to Kurds, Sunnis,” Rudaw, 10/1/14
van den Toorn, Christine, Lacky, Shwan, “Shootout between ‘allies’ underscores Iraq divisions,” Iraq Oil Report, 10/8/14