FALLUJAH, Iraq — The liberation of this fiercely contested city in central Iraq’s volatile Anbar province should have been a high water mark in the campaign to break the Islamic State’s hold on the country and reclaim swaths of territory swallowed up in its so-called “caliphate.”
Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias, under the cover of U.S. air support, flushed the terror group also known as ISIS and ISIL out of Fallujah in June in an offensive widely praised by military commanders at the Pentagon and inside Baghdad’s “Green Zone.”
Then the dead bodies started to appear.
Reports emerged that as many as 300 Sunni Muslim civilians had survived Islamic State’s nightmarish two-year grip on their city only to be summarily executed and dumped in shallow graves by Shiite militiamen who had taken over in the terror group’s wake.
Such atrocities by the militias — officially known as the Popular Mobilization Units — underscore a crisis within the wider fight against Islamic State in Iraq, one that has vastly complicated the Obama administration’s attempt to work with Baghdad’s Shiite political leaders toward destroying the terror group without a massive influx of U.S. troops. Even in the “victory” here in Fallujah, Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions are on full display.
Conflicting agendas, clashing allies, uncertain goals in a messy endgame — these are the problems that will soon confront whoever inherits the U.S. military effort from President Obama in the coming months, taking over a mess that has so far seen American officials quietly take the side of the Popular Mobilization Units, all while Iraq’s battered Sunni political leaders cry foul over the horrors being inflicted on their countrymen.
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“They broke the law,” Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq told The Washington Times, referring to reports of human rights abuses by the militias, ranging from looting of Sunni homes and mosques to mass kidnappings and extrajudicial killings of Sunni civilians.
Did the government of Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi control the behavior of the militias? “No,” said a seething Mr. al-Mutlaq, who complained that Iraqi military troops and Shiite political leaders were nowhere to be seen when Shiite fighters rounded up between 600 and 700 Sunni men in Fallujah who’ve never been seen since.
“Where was the government then?” he said in an interview this summer.
What began as a desperate, stopgap campaign by Iraqi leaders to stem Islamic State forces from overrunning Baghdad and other major cities in the country is now fueling a new era of sectarian violence, as a formidable array of Shiite militias casts a dark shadow over the Iraqi military’s recent battlefield successes.
American commanders have become increasingly wary that the more integral the militias become to the battle plan, the weaker Baghdad’s ability will be to rein in the paramilitary force — which now numbers over 120,000 fighters.
What’s worse, many here fear the growing strength of the Shiite militias has blown the door wide open for Tehran to expand its already formidable influence in Iraq — feeding off a sectarian war the Sunni-based Islamic State is seeking to reignite in the country. Iraq’s majority Shiite population, which has long felt oppressed by the Sunni minority, has long had religious and political ties to Tehran.
But how bad could a bigger Iranian role be? It’s a question on the minds of political leaders and armed factions across Iraq, where many say the alternative of sustained Islamic State control over large parts of the country would be far worse.
Some even wonder why U.S. officials haven’t actually done more to get behind the al-Abadi government’s reliance on the Shiite militias, who are known in Arabic as the “Hashid Shaabi” or simply “Hashid.”
“If you speak to the American authorities and ask, ‘Are you worried about ISIS?’ they will say, ‘No, we are worried about the Hashid,’” said Rayyan al-Kildani, commander of a 2,500-man Christian militia around Baghdad known as the “Babylon Brigade.”
“I do not know why the American authorities consider the Hashid as criminals,” Mr. al-Kildani told The Times in a July interview at his home in Karrada, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of the Iraqi capital.
“We can sit and [work] with anyone,” he said. “Can ISIS do the same? No.”
Iraqi defense officials seem to agree. They’ve been scrambling for months to incorporate the militias into the country’s armed services. In July former Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi said the Hashid would be formally placed under the command of the Ministry of Defense.
It was not clear whether the move was driven by a desire to undercut Iran’s influence or something more sobering: the fear that, without some restraint, the Hashid may soon replace Islamic State as Baghdad’s top security concern by establishing their own Shiite-controlled outposts throughout Iraq.
Shia Islamic State
Concern about the Shiite militias runs deepest in northern Iraq, where Kurdish peshmerga forces are manning the advancing front outside the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.
It comes out whenever discussion among the peshmerga turns to the role the Hashid might play in the coming assault on the city. There’s a specific term that gets used in hushed tones over cups of tea or quiet conversation with cigarettes: “Shia ISIS.”
Some Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds believe it’s the best way to describe the Shiite militias amid ever-growing reports of the human rights atrocities they’ve committed — more often than not, they insist, with the knowledge of the Iraqi security forces they’ve fought beside.
A Human Rights Watch report in June confirmed more than 600 Sunni men from Fallujah showed signs of severe torture and abuse while being detained by a particularly menacing Iran-backed militia known as the Kata’ib Hezbollah, as well as another southern Iraq-based group militia known as the Badr Brigades. Shiite fighters reportedly said the detentions were conducted in order to see if any of the men were actually Islamic State members hoping to slip through Iraqi government lines.
Many of Sunni men remained in captivity this summer.
At one U.N. refugee camp in the city of Al-Amiriyah — about 20 miles south of Fallujah — the camp’s roughly 3,000 residents were almost entirely women and children.
One of the few men in the camp said in an interview that nearly all of the fathers, brothers and sons were still being detained and interrogated by Iraqi government forces and Shia militiamen. The man, a Sunni who did not want to be quoted by name, said he and a handful of others got free by bribing their way out; those who couldn’t pay remain in government custody.
Back in Baghdad, Sunni political leaders fear the situation is about to play out anew in northern Iraq if the al-Abadi government allows the Shiite militias to participate in the Mosul campaign. “We will get the same results,” Mr. Mutlaq, the Sunni lawmaker, warned.
“Do the Americans want to see Iraq shredded apart and handed to Iran?” he asked. “If so, then it will be in the hands of God.”
U.S. commanders say any role the militias play in Mosul will influence an Iraqi decision — one Baghdad has yet to make. But there’s no doubt the Shiite militias would add considerable firepower to the assault.
If the al-Abadi government grants a role for the militias in the fight for Mosul, over 15,000 fighters could take part in the operation, said Muhammed al-Oqabi, a spokesman for Public Mobilization Commission, the government body created to work with the militias.
The Shiite forces can be trusted, he argued, asserting that the fear of them “occupying the Sunni cities does not exist, except in the minds of some politicians.”
One plan to incorporate the Shiite militias into the Mosul campaign would be to reorganize the militias as a paramilitary force, similar to the so-called Iraqi Special Forces 1st Brigade that is known as the “Golden Division.”
The militias would not be officially designated as Iraqi military units, but they would be federalized under Baghdad’s control — armed, paid and taking orders from the Iraqi government.
Such a move, according to Mr. al-Oqabi, would place Shiite fighters under the military’s chain of command, but still allow for a certain level of autonomy.
But critics suggest Iranian interlocutors may be lurking behind the plan and assert that it would essentially create an Iraqi version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC, which also does not fall directly under the command of Iran’s military or the elected government, but are loyal to and controlled by Iran’s theocratic rulers.
Militia commanders and other officials expressed in interviews only tepid support for the Golden Division plan.
Safaa al-Timeemi, spokesman for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya Al-Salam militia, said his organization might embrace the plan because they would be able to work with Iraqi government troops without having to fight under the government’s flag.
Mr. Sadr’s militia controls as much as 2,000 square miles of territory, mostly in the Nineveh province of northern Iraq. “We commit to the direction and orders of [Muqtada al-Sadr],” Mr. al-Tameemi said. “If he says we should be part of this new organization, then we will. If not, then we will not.
“We are not a replacement for the [Iraqi] army, but we are in support of the army,” he said.
After helping to liberate areas from Islamic State around Baghdad last year, the Sadr-aligned militia quickly went to work setting up hospitals, schools, emergency services and other public infrastructure devastated in the fighting, Mr. al-Tameemi added.
“Our objectives are religious and military,” he added, suggesting that formally incorporating the militias into the national army may not help to legitimize its image beyond Iraq. “Our true image has to reach the U.S. [commanders]” in Baghdad, Mr. al-Tameemi said.
Christian militia commander Mr. al-Kildani said that the Shiite militias have gained force in Iraq because of the military’s previous failures to hold back Islamic State — and it will now be up to Baghdad to fashion the variety of anti-Islamic State groups into a cohesive coalition.
“Once ISIS is defeated in Iraq, it will be up to [Baghdad] to see what will happen,” he said. “Whatever they order, we will follow.”
“All Iraqis revolted against ISIS,” not just the Shiite militias, the Christian militia commander said. “When ISIS came, the peshmerga did not protect us. The army did not protect us.”
Despite all the hand-wringing over the risks of allowing the Shiite militias to take a major role in the fight, the price of cutting them out of the anti-ISIS campaign may be much higher, he added.
“There is a saying, ‘You don’t ask who buried the snake, you ask who killed it,’” Mr. Kildani said. “It was the Hashid who killed the snake. The [Iraqi] army only buried it.
“If it wasn’t for the Hashid,” he added, “[Islamic State head] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would have taken Baghdad and would be living in the Green Zone.”