Baghdad’s reliance on Shia militias raises concerns
DUBAI - The Iraqi government’s over-reliance on Shia militias to do the job of the Iraqi military has raised eyebrows over Baghdad’s actual intentions in the war on terrorism and whether it has a hidden agenda with Iran to weaken and ethnically cleanse Sunni provinces to reach the oil-rich areas in the north.
The ease at which the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) advanced into predominantly Sunni towns and cities, with little significant resistance from Iraqi regular troops or paramilitary police units, raised the suspicion of observers and officials regionally and internationally.
What was more surprising was to see the Iraqi government seek the assistance of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias, to do the job that the Iraqi armed forces should be doing.
According to defence contractors and Iraqi security sources, Baghdad has been investing heavily in building the PMF. “The Iraqi government is transferring most of the procured ammunition and arms to the PMF and leaving Iraqi troops and police most of the time with limited ammunition and defence capabilities,” a defence contractor who deals with Iraq said.
“Once an arms shipment reaches the Baghdad airport we could see Iraqi security giving way to PMF men to move in and unload the weapons onto their own trucks and drive away,” the defence contractor, who asked not to be named, said. “The Iraqi government is even providing legal documentations like end-user certificates to procure stuff for the PMF.”
“Between what ISIS captured from Iraqi army depots and from what the government has given the PMF, the Iraqi military has lost around 65% of its arms, equipment and assets,” according to an Iraqi security official who asked not to be named.
The latest city to be lost to ISIS is Ramadi. It was the same scenario of what happened at Tikrit and many other places. ISIS fighters pushed in against Iraqi regular forces backed by poorly armed Sunni tribesmen putting up a desperate fight with limited ammunition and resources. Pleas for assistance from Baghdad went unanswered until the city was lost and then the government called for PMF intervention.
The PMF failed to expel ISIS from Tikrit and the international alliance fighting ISIS refused to provide air cover for PMF for fear of being caught in a sectarian conflict sweeping Iraq. Tikrit was liberated from ISIS by regular Iraqi troops with alliance air cover. But PMF moved into the city afterwards and was accused by Human Rights Watch of committing atrocities against the civilian residents of the Sunni city.
Iraqi Sunni officials called for public enquiries and the Iraqi government promised to investigate but nothing has materialised while many of the city’s residents seem unable to return for fear of reprisals by the PMF roaming the city.
The same scenario appears to be unfolding in Ramadi, where a Shia militia is being asked to move in to evict Sunni radical fighters from a Sunni city. The Arab members of the alliance, especially the Arab Gulf States, appear to have suspended all operations in Iraq.
According to an official Arab Gulf source, the United States, which leads the alliance, has been informed that Arab warplanes will not be taking part in operations that would provide cover for the PMF. Worried about the unity of the alliance, Washington adopted a similar position and pressed Baghdad to invest more in building the regular forces and arm Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS. But the Iraqi government has been very slow in reacting.
The US Congress recently passed a measure allowing Washington to provide arms to Sunni and Kurdish forces in Iraq without going through Baghdad.
The current policies of the Iranian-influenced Iraqi government seem to be weakening the Sunni provinces by using the war against ISIS to do sectarian cleansing and widen Shia areas of control into oil-rich territories in the north.
However, Baghdad will likely find itself soon in direct conflict with the Arab Gulf countries and maybe the West. Exasperating the anxieties of Iraqi Sunni tribes could push more of their young men into allying with ISIS and shift the war on terrorism into a purely sectarian battle.
The international community should exercise more scrutiny into arms deals with Iraq and impose conditions in their contracts that would penalise Baghdad for passing on weapons and ammunition to the militias. Turning the war on ISIS in Iraq into a sectarian war will ultimately lead to a bigger regional conflict and the loss of the global war on terrorism.