Shia Militias Diss U.S. Air Strikes, Want American Weapons
No one knows what to do about Iraq's paramilitary groups
Earlier this year, the Iraqi army defeated Islamic State in Tikrit. Optimists thought that the battle might foreshadow the rollback of Sunni militants in Iraq. But it wouldn’t have happened without Iranian-sponsored paramilitary groups which oppose America as much as they do the Islamic State.
The Iraqi government has tried uniting these paramilitaries under the Ministry of Interior, which, alongside the Ministry of Defense, leads Iraq’s fight against Islamic State.
The resulting umbrella organization Al Hashd Al Shaabi — or people’s mobilization — has concerned Arab and Western officials, who question how the Iraqi government can control and oversee a private army that, according to many, owes its loyalty to a foreign country and a radical ideology.
I contacted Al Hashd spokesman Mustafa at-Taib to learn more about the organization. Taib presented Shia history during recent decades as defensive and reactive, responding to Sunni aggression. He would later dismiss America’s air strikes as ineffective and call on America to supply the paramilitaries with weapons.
“Following the reign of injustice by the dictator Saddam Hussein, the Shias were made targets by Al Qaeda,” he said. “After the [Western] occupation of 2003, Sunni extremists believed that they could enter Heaven by killing Shias, based on fatwas by advocates of the ISIS ideology and Saudi Wahhabism. Shias remained targets till 2011, when the Americans left.”
There’s truth in much of what Taib said. But he seemed to ignore how Sunnis had become persecuted after America invaded Iraq more than a decade ago. Taib portrayed Iraqi history as an anti-Shia conspiracy, and though Shias continue to suffer war crimes committed by Sunni militants, the Shia paramilitaries of which he is a member committed just as many.
To be sure, many of the paramilitaries such as the Badr Organization, began as resistance movements during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Even then, they competed with one another, which allowed Iran to influence the various groups without any one becoming autonomous of one another and their foreign sponsors.
When the Iraqi government switched from Sunni control to Shia, the old paramilitaries repurposed themselves, and new ones joined them. They would succeed in defending Iraqi Shias where the new Iraqi government, considered an American proxy, had failed.
Many based themselves in Sadr City, an impoverished Baghdad suburb and Shia ghetto. “The situation in Sadr City suggested that Iraqis were capable of taking care of themselves and that, indeed, they were doing a better job of keeping the peace and providing essential services than the American army,” journalist Aaron Glantz wrote in his 2005 book How America Lost Iraq.
The inter-Shia competition and conflict remained a problem. “In the aftermath of the invasion, groups strove to capture specific towns or regions in which they could install leading officials and thus hold resources, and obtain recruits through local civil networks,” political theorist Glen Rangwala wrote in The Iraq War and Democratic Politics.
“Within days, the armed personnel of this movement — previously unknown outside of Iraq — had established strongholds in Kufa, Najaf and the Shia quarter of Samarra. These militias were formalized into the Mahdi Army.”
The Mahdi Army, or Jaish Al Mahdi, would soon become notorious among Americans. It fought not only Sunnis but also Westerners, attacking coalition troops in Amarah, Basra, Karbala, Kufa, Kut, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Sadr City and other Shia-majority cities, towns and villages.
Taib admitted that “a sectarian war occurred” as Jaish Al Mahdi expanded its influence. Even so, he understated what the paramilitary group did to cause this conflict, claiming that Jaish Al Mahdi was only “protecting civilians in Baghdad and the south.”
The fighters transitioned from the defensive to the offensive, attacking Sunnis throughout 2006 and 2007 in an ethnic cleansing campaign. Shia soldiers in the Iraqi army deserted their posts and joined the paramilitaries. Death squads feared for kidnapping, torturing and executing hostages roamed the streets of Baghdad.
The distinctions between the Iraqi security forces and the militias began to break down. A Shia could be a member of the Iraqi army and Jaish Al Mahdi without the Americans knowing about it. As the Iraqi government failed to control the paramilitaries, observers wondered whether it even wanted to try.
During the next few years, the Western coalition suppressed sectarianism with the New Way Forward, better known as “the Surge.” Sunni militias teamed up with American soldiers to fight the Islamic State of Iraq, the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq and the predecessor to Islamic State. However, paramilitaries such as Jaish Al Mahdi ensured short-term success but long-term failure, committing atrocities that would increase Sunni support for the Islamic State.
When Jaish Al Mahdi disbanded 2008, its former members reunited in three other organizations. There are the Hezbollah Battalions (Kataib Hezbollah), the League of the Righteous (Asaib Ahl Al Haqq) and the Promised Day Brigade (Liwa Al Youm Al Mawud). The U.S. military refers to the three as “the Special Groups,” or the paramilitaries with the strongest relationships with Iran.
As Islamic State expanded to Syria, so did Iraqi Shia militants, deploying to Damascus and other cities in the thousands. “Many groups linked to Al Qaeda attacked our holy shrines in Syria,” confirmed Taib, “so seven factions, including Asaib Ahl Al Haqq, Liwa Al Youm Al Mawud and Kataib Hezbollah, traveled there.”
Most of the fighters would return to Iraq three years later after ISI, now the Islamic State, advanced on shrines closer to home in the Shia holy cities Karbala, Kufa, Najaf and Samarra. Taib blamed the Iraqi army’s failure to respond on “a conspiracy of Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni politicians with Qatari, Saudi and Turkish support.”
“Some residents of Mosul embraced ISIS, but they only opened the way to persecution, killing, displacement and the captivity of women — as happened to our Christian, Turkmen and Yazidi brothers,” he said.
Ali Husseini Al Sistani, the most respected Shia cleric in Iraq, called on his countrymen to defend Baghdad and Shia holy cities in June 2014. Two days later, the Iraqi government formed Al Hashd. The paramilitaries had always existed but were never united. Because of Sistani, they now had a reason to.
Since then, Al Hashd has fought alongside the Iraqi army, often outdoing its military ally. “The popular mobilization forces have made a fundamental difference on the battlefield, as they have undermined the superiority of IS at the level of guerrilla warfare,” journalist Mustafa al-Kadhimi wrote in Al-Monitor late last year. “They have been able to make swift movements, making decisions on the ground without military intricacies and the need to refer to higher orders.”
Al Hashd’s support proved decisive in the Second Battle of Tikrit, which the Iraqi government retook from Islamic State this April.
Tikrit provided an example of Al Hashd’s successes and failures. Analysts doubted that the Iraqi government could have won its most prestigious victory without the paramilitaries. The Islamic State faced motley opponents — Iraqi soldiers, Shia and Sunni militiamen, Iranian advisers and a U.S.-led coalition represented by American, British and French warplanes.
The problems of the coalition became obvious. Al Hashd’s paramilitary groups boycotted the Western air strikes, claiming that Shia fighters could seize Tikrit without close air support. Critics in turn questioned whether the Western coalition was acting as an air force for Iran and its allies, and human rights groups protested that extremists from Al Hashd might persecute Sunni civilians in Tikrit as had happened years earlier.
Taib gave me a neutral portrayal of Al Hashd. “We welcome any effort or help from the West, Russia, Iran and the Arabs states to speed up ISIS’ exit from Iraq on the condition that such assistance be coordinated with the government and does not lead to a breach of national sovereignty,” he said, criticizing the coalition — not a Western conspiracy but ineffective.
“The international coalition is not serious about helping Iraq, and most of the air strikes have failed. As for armaments, no one mentions the Shias [i.e. the paramilitaries]. We do not need air strikes as much as we need weapons.”
He requested international support for Al Hashd. “After the calls from the religious authority to join Al Hashd, there were too many people to train,” he added. “We are suffering from a lack of efficiency and weaponry. Because the Iraqi government failed to train the volunteers and America failed to arm them, Iran came to help us. It has trained approximately ten thousand fighters.”
Taib implied that Al Hashd worked with Iran because it had to, not because it wanted to. “Because the Iraqi army does not have weapons and America neglected its promise to arm Iraq, Al Hashd is necessary,” he said. “Iran has opened its stores of weapons, ammunition, expertise and advisers to us.”
Taib wished that America and its allies do the same.
But his argument seemed specious. Many of the paramilitaries in Al Hashd made a career of fighting America, which considers one of them, Kataib Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. Still, other analysts see in Al Hashd the Iraqi government’s best opportunity to fight Islamic State. Yet they forget that sectarianism, which allowed Islamic State to flourish in Sunni-majority regions of Iraq, is the greater enemy.
Taib pointed out the presence of Sunni fighters serving with the paramilitaries as evidence his organization doesn’t have sectarian ambitions. “More than seven thousand Sunnis fought alongside Al Hashd in Tikrit, more than five thousand in Diyala and more than ten thousand in Al Anbar,” he said.
The Iraqi government and its patrons in America and Iran must determine what to make of Al Hashd.
“To suppose that Iraqi Sunnis and Shias are either indivisible or eternally divided is to ignore the nature and fluidity of group identities,” analyst Fanar Haddad wrote in his book Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. “Sectarian civil war may have been a reality in 2006 but it was not an inevitability and its future reoccurence is neither impossible nor assured.”
“To put it bluntly, many of the same young men who were committing the most heinous crimes in 2006 and 2007 are the same people who were previously able to coexist and are today able to attend ‘reconciliation conferences.'”
Taib appeared hopeful for the future of Iraqi pluralism. Sunnis suffering persecution may be less so.