Before They Attacked the Kurds, Shia Militias Undermined the Campaign for Mosul
Pro-Iran groups have taken aim at Kurdish and Western forces
In July 2016, the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul was within reach of the forces trying to liberate it. Iraqi and Kurdish forces — along with a spattering of Western troops — had taken up positions on the edge of the city and swapped fire with militants inside.
The noose was tightening around the terror group’s Iraq headquarters.
But pro-Iran Shia militias, which ostensibly fight alongside the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, posed vexing problems for the armies fighting to oust the Islamic State from Iraq.
And in October 2017, the same militias attacked the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, potentially sparking a new civil war in the country. Even as Iraq and its allies continue to battle Islamic State.
Back in 2016, the Shia militia group Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq warned the peshmerga against participating in the liberation of Mosul — while insisting its own forces would hasten the victory.
“We warn against the approval of peshmerga participation in the Mosul liberation,” said Jawad Al Tibawi, military spokesperson of the Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq, according to Summaria News. “And participation of the Hashd [Shia militias] will help the operation by making the victory faster.”
The statement came not long after radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr told his followers that they should consider American and British troops helping Iraqi forces take Mosul as “invaders” and “targets.”
Al Sadr was the leader of a popular Iranian-backed political and insurgent movement that fought Iraqi, U.S. and British troops during the Iraq War and killed thousands of civilians.
At top and above — Shia paramilitary fighters in Iraq. Popular Mobilization Forces captures
Though the Shia militias have caused problems, they’ve also been essential to the anti-Islamic State campaign. When Iraqi commanders abandoned their troops in Mosul in 2014 — leading to a complete collapse of the Iraqi army — many soldiers deserted and joined militias, instead.
As the army regrouped, Baghdad authorized volunteer militia groups to serve alongside government forces on the battlefield. This gave carte blanche for thousands of well-supplied and dedicated Shia fighters to mobilize and move to the front line.
Indeed, the militias played a critical part in the defense of the Shia Turkmen town of Amerli as the Islamic State threatened to murder the inhabitants in what the United Nations described as an attempted genocide. American planes even supported the militias as they fought to protect the town.
But the militias have posed a serious problem for the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga and the United States. Though they’ve played a crucial role in winning battles and dislodging the Islamic State from towns and villages, they’ve proved to be a source of instability and violence in those same territories after the jihadists retreat.
Before Kirkuk, interactions between the militias and Kurdish forces were particularly tense in the ethnically mixed towns of Tuz Kharmatu and Jalawla.
After Kurdish forces liberated Jalawla, Shia militiamen moved into the town and began looting the town, according to Kurdish security officials. In particular, they targeted homes and businesses belonging to Sunni Arabs, but didn’t shy away from robbing Kurds.
Peshmerga forces worked with local Sunnis to recapture the town, and local officials told War Is Boring they attempted to create a security force of Kurds and Arabs to take over security for the town.
In Tuz Kharmatu, Kurdish troops and Shia militiamen came to blows in deadly skirmishes. Militias’ abductions of local Sunnis — and alleged killings — have caused tension with peshmerga in the area.
Maj. Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor, the local Kurdish commander, told War Is Boring that he and his men regard it as their duty to protect all residents in the area. And understandably, many Sunnis fear the prospect of Shia militias marching into their towns. It was a major concern the effort to liberate Mosul, which until the Islamic State takeover was Iraq’s most diverse and metropolitan city.
While many residents of Mosul opposed the Islamic State, many others tolerated the jihadists as a bulwark against the militias that they fear much more than they ever did ISIS.
Al Sadr’s belligerence signaled a potential host of new problems. Threats against American and British troops risked jeopardizing progress that all anti-ISIS factions in Iraq paid for in blood.
But the Shia militias’ attack on the Kurds in Kirkuk is far more grave. It’s a potentially deadly new variable in a war that’s already wickedly complex.