Shia Militias Can Win the War on the Islamic State, But Lose the Peace
Murder, torture and forced displacement will exacerbate sectarian conflict
by ANHVINH DOANVO
Since its peak, the Islamic State has lost 45 percent of its territory. While it would be an enormous understatement to call this good news, there is a grim underside.
Shia militias with sectarian ambitions — and responsible for murder and torture, among other human rights violations — are playing a crucial role in the counter-offensive. Many of them go to battle with weapons supplied by Iran.
To be sure, without the militias, the Islamic State would have far more territory under its control than it does currently, particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province.
Most militia fighters fall under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a counterinsurgency umbrella group which includes 100,000–120,000 volunteers in their ranks. Most are Shia.
In many of the largest battles, PMF militias played a larger role than indigenous Sunni militias. Shia fighters made up a third of the forces which recaptured the Anbar cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and two-thirds of the fighters which retook Baiji and Tikrit.
In Tikrit, PMF fighters outnumbered Sunni militiamen by 20,000 to just 1,000. In each of these cities, Sunnis comprised the majority of the population, with as many as 90 percent of Ramadi civilians being Sunni.
Contrary to pro-Shia sources, the PMF demonstrates sectarian aims with little respect to Sunni civilians.
In Tikrit, the PMF-affiliated Shia Hezbollah Battalions and the League of the Righteous Forces — both backed by Iran — abducted around 200 Sunni civilians and demolished several hundred Sunni homes, according to Human Rights Watch.
Reports of PMF militias indiscriminately targeting civilians in Ramadi remain unclear. But in Fallujah, they beat and tortured more than a thousand civilians — including dragging men behind cars, according to HRW.
Four men who were dragged may have died.
These human rights abuses are serious and widespread enough to make the PMF a national security risk unto themselves.
Because of fears of the Shia militias, “Iraq’s Sunnis will remain willing to endure some deprivation under ISIL rule,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in a February statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Abadi further called for the PMF to enlist thousands of Sunnis. The Iraqi government also established a prison for human rights offenders, but these measures have translated into little accountability.
According to HRW, more than 90 Hezbollah Battalions militia fighters tortured at least 600 civilians during last month’s Fallujah assault, but as of July, only “four or five” fighters were arrested.
Basam Ridha, the Washington representative of the PMF, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that “the reality is that [the militia fighters] do cover for each other,” making it impossible to find credible witnesses.
“They have done a lot of vicious activities … but they get away with it.”
U.S. government narratives have hardly helped. Brett McGurk, the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, dismissed the PMF’s violations as “isolated atrocities” just as reports of the alleged mass murder of 300 civilians by PMF forces were appearing.
Incidents of murder, torture and genocide are not issues that only diplomats have the luxury to debate — they are tomorrow’s paths to Iraq’s downfall. The United States cannot possibly expect Sunni civilians to root out insurgents so long as the justice system remains broken and Shia militias can freely abuse Sunni civilians.
When the Islamic State falls, the PMF’s dominance may renew insurgencies fueled by outrage at attacks on civilians by Shia and also Kurdish fighters. The hope that Iraq could bridge a sectarian chasm would be just that — hope.
Today’s wars require the construction of societies and governments respecting the rights of all, for, without them, there shall be no end to war. Despite the PMF’s valuable contributions to the war on the Islamic State, after each battle, they have helped serve to tear it all down.