The Iraqi Army Can Win Ground Battles After All
Without help from Shia militias
The offensive which pushed the Islamic State out of central Ramadi is shaping into one of the Iraqi army’s most significant victories to date … one backed by lots of U.S. air power.
Taking and holding Ramadi, a Sunni-majority city in Iraq’s contested Anbar province, is a major test for Baghdad’s ability defeat the Islamic State. But more important than that is the army’s ability to hold ground in a Sunni-dominated city during a war that’s seen ethnic armies consistently outfight national ones.
Shia paramilitary groups, many backed by Iran, filled a void left by the Iraqi army after its collapse during summer 2014.
But now the Iraqi army is back … in Ramadi. And the Shia paramilitaries were conspicuously absent. It’s unclear how many — if any — militia fighters participated in the battle. There appears to have been far less than during the pitched battle for Tikrit in March-April 2015, which Shia militias led.
“There were differences between the Shia and Sunni political blocs, so the Hashd was not involved in the battles of Al Anbar,” Muhammad Hussein Al Jairali, a Shia Turkmen militia fighter, told War Is Boring.
The People’s Mobilization, or Al Hashd Al Shaabi — or simply the Hashd — is Iraq’s principle Shia paramilitary coalition, bringing together the Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah, among other groups. The Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah previously fought the U.S. military during the insurgency in the mid-late 2000s.
The Hashd staying out of Ramadi could temper sectarian tensions — something which the Islamic State has exploited after previous clashes. After the battle of Tikrit, Shia militias engaged in summary executions, looting and burning of Sunni homes and businesses. The Sunni militants capitalized on it.
According to a source interviewed article by Tim Lister in CTC Sentinel, the monthly journal of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the Islamic State “moved busloads of Sunni civilians from Tikrit to Mosul so they could spread work of the atrocities committed by the militia.”
For its part, the Hashd defends itself against allegations of sectarianism. Haj Abu Kuthr Al Muhammadawi, a Hashd brigade commander, told War Is Boring the coalition is a multi-ethnic force dedicated to defending Iraq from terrorism.
“The Hashd is a national institution par excellence without nationalism or sectarianism, which do not hinder it,” Muhammadawi said. “The leaders of the brigades are Iraqis, and these brigades include Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Turkmens and even Kurds. All the factions fight under the flag of the Hashd and the leadership of the Iraqi government.”
“The fighters of the Hashd, though being 80 percent new recruits and coming from many different factions, are governed by the laws of the Iraqi military and maintain relationships and cooperation,” he added. “They have a common goal — the salvation of Iraq and the world from terrorism and ISIS.”
Muhammadawi described the Hashd’s war on the Islamic State as a “jihad against occupiers” with sanction from Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most important Shia cleric. Sistani’s theology, however, holds that clerics should avoid political power — a sharp distinction from the velayat-e faqih doctrine practiced by the Iranian state and promoted by several of the Hashd’s militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah.
Samir Ar Raqi, a Sunni activist and journalist from Mosul, does not agree with the Hashd’s claims of non-sectarianism. “There are small groups of non-Shias in the Hashd,” Rawi said. “But they are only motivated to defend their cities from ISIS — as with the Sunnis in Saladin and Al Anbar, the Turkmens in Kirkuk and the Yazidis in Sinjar.”
“The Hashd is built on a sectarian basis, which is supported by Iran and works within the Iranian agenda by carrying out anti-Sunni activities,” he added.
“The Hashd is responsible for many crimes, such as murder, abduction, forced displacement, and the burning and bombing of homes and mosques as well as the looting and theft of property and residential buildings — as happened in Tikrit, Baiji, and Sinjar.”
Iraqi security forces have also faced allegations of looting and carrying out summary executions of prisoners in Tikrit. Nor is the battle for Ramadi over, as there is still fighting in the city, according to Reuters. The Islamic State’s trademark defense is to bog down their enemies with smaller forces and extensive use of improvised explosives.
However, Ramadi’s strategic government center is now under the Iraqi government’s control.
War is inherently confusing and uncertain. But there is one thing for sure, and that is the Iraqi army is more capable than it was a year ago. Reuters pointed to reforms that eliminated 50,000 “ghost soldiers” — whose paychecks ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials — as contributing to the army’s improved fortunes.
The Iraqi army also had support from dozens of U.S. air strikes. Far more quietly, Western advisers have been training and supplying the Iraqi army. Now Baghdad’s troops will have to march on Mosul — which is far larger and likely much more heavily defended.