Iraqi Militia Barrel Toward Hawija
Chaos reigns as militia groups attack Islamic State-held villages
Militia trucks clad in half-inch sheet metal drove in frenzied braids to get to the head of the pack. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max. Clearly, any effort from the Iraqi army to maintain a unified line would be futile.
On Sept. 29, 2017, Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake the Islamic State-held city of Hawija, one of the group’s last strongholds in central Iraq. The region is of special interest to coalition forces owing to its oil reserves, which ISIS had relied on for much of its revenue.
Operations started on the morning with helicopters dropping thousands of leaflets to warn families and potential militants of the coalition’s plan to liberate the region.
Brig. Gen. Waleed Khalifa, commander of the Iraqi army’s 9th Division and several Popular Mobilization Force brigades, said there could be between 500 and 1,000 Islamic State fighters in the area.
Many of the group’s militants had fled the region, but the al muhajir — foreign fighters who cannot blend into the local population — stayed to fight. Khalifa said he expected to clear the villages southwest of the city in five to seven days.
Driving from Camp Speicher in Tikrit to a forward operating base closer to the front lines, we see plumes of black smoke blurring the horizon. Iraqi army lieutenant colonel Jaafer explained that ISIS militants had lit the oil fields on fire the night before in an effort to mask the group’s fighters from air strikes.
Iraqi army brigadier general Waleed Khalifa speaks to his troops and the press a few miles from the front line. Adam McCaw/AMYKmedia photo
As we got closer to the FOB, our convoy passed buses and minivans filled with families driving in the opposite direction with what appeared to be their entire lives strapped onto the roofs.
Pulling into the base, we saw Iraqi soldiers prepping weapons and packing their trucks. The FOB sat on a hilltop overlooking the Hamrin Mountains, where ISIS fighters were said to have positioned snipers. Soldiers with binoculars scanned the horizon from sandbags.
Iraqi infantrymen deployed from the FOB and began blocking the roads leading into the villages. Khalifa said Iraqi forces had called in 12 coalition air strikes to take out some of the heavier ISIS weapons caches in advance of the main ground assault.
During the second phase of the attack, tanks and armored vehicles rolled into action. We piled into a Humvee. Our translator warned us to be careful when we encounter the PMF militiamen. “They aren’t too fond of ameriki,” he said.
The PMF was everywhere, their flag marking their vehicles. The Hash’d Al Shaabi, Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq and Hash’d Al Turkmani brigades were most prominent. With their archaic tanks, self-built armored vehicles and hundreds of men toting AK-47s and RPGs, the militiamen were a mess — but determined to defeat ISIS.
By the time we had reached the front line, there were more PMF militiamen in evidence than there were regular Iraqi soldiers. Music blared from speakers. Men sang their group’s anthem. As the makeshift tanks rolled by, men jump on their roofs, hoods and tailgates to hitch rides.
Dump trucks packed full of militiamen waving guns and banners turned off-road to avoid the traffic. Iraqi soldiers tried to manage the chaos. Infantrymen posted red flags on the shoulders of the road, marking the locations of improvised explosive devices.
A member of Hash’d Al Shaabi peers through the gunners turret of his vehicle while heading to fight ISIS on the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq. Adam McCaw/AMYKmedia photo
The horde reached the first village. Tanks shelled structures on the outskirts. Then the infantry swept through. The Iraqi soldier driving our Humvee said there were more than 90 villages between our position and Hawija that had to be cleared before army forces could move on the city.
The army and PMF got in each other’s ways. The Iraqi army would move its tanks forward in an organized front, working the angles — and then PMF trucks would barge in and wreck the formation. It was clear that the army wasn’t in control of the front.
A PMF militiaman spotted us — and objected to our presence. “You call us a militia,” he said. “We’re an army.”
Our driver shot us a worried look. We got back inside our Humvee and turned around.
Back at the FOB, Khalifa told us that once operations began in Hawija proper, militia forces would go into reserve. The Iraqi army and Iraqi Special Forces would take over.
Baghdad has sanctioned roughly 40 PMFs with 60,000 men. Sources within both the Iraqi and U.S. militaries told us that the militias would help to decide Iraq’s future. It was unclear whether the central government would absorb PMF fighters into the army or try to disband the militias after the war.